There's a moment, stepping back into the maelstrom of the Koelnmesse a mere half an hour after my appointment with Oculus where a fellow journalist turns to me and remarks that I look fairly dazed and confused. He asks if I'm hungover, and I have to reply in the negative. "It's nothing to do with anything alcoholic at all," I tell him. "I've just stepped out of another world, and I don't think I was ready to leave."
That world happened to be a low-res early build of Doom 3: BFG's Mars City. But instead of simply picking up my controller and staring at a screen as normal, I'd taken off my spectacles, strapped a device to my face that looked almost as if it had been created from cereal packets and duck tape, and entered the realm of the Oculus Rift.
It was, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most immersive virtual experiences I have ever had in my life.
Palmer Luckey, Oculus founder and designer of the Rift, describes the device as "an ultra-wide field of view, ultra-low latency, virtual reality headset". He's not wrong, either. The current version of the Rift didn't support spectacles, so I had to remove mine, which made the experience a little fuzzy due my exceptionally poor eyesight, but as I was told a number of times, the build of Doom was an early one.
It didn't matter. As soon as the device powered up, I was instantly in another world. The head-tracking, true to description, was absolutely spot on, and during my brief demo there were no signs of latency issues at all. The display itself serves up a resolution of 1280×800, which is then split up via optics to serve each eye individually, meaning that the 3D is totally and completely synchronised. True, the resolution wasn't exactly mindblowing, but the experience had that covered.
Much of that was down to the enormous field of vision. Though not quite expanded out to full ocular range, the ninety degree FOV proved staggeringly immersive, with the amplified blind spots proving nowhere near as disconcerting as I had thought they might be.
"I've been interested in head mounted displays and stereoscopic 3D displays for some time now, and I'd tried out tons and tons of head mounted displays," said Luckey. "I actually have 43 unique units now, including doubles, and none of them are very good. [Laughs.] Well, what I mean by that is that none of them are lightweight or have a great field of view with good head tracking. So, being a tinkerer, I resolved to build my own head mounted display and build it the way I'd want it to be. It took a couple of years, but technology kept marching on and all of a sudden the seemingly impossible became possible."
Having that complete one-to-one head tracking reflected in the game was truly exceptional. There were no signs of lag or drift and it wasn't long before I was aiming with a combination of head movement and deft touches on the right stick. Though it would have been interesting, perhaps, to have tested out an in-game demo where the reticule was detached from the camera - the former aimed with your hands on the controller, the latter with your head - the logistics of having to do a complete turn to see behind you would not really have made that practical. It might work in Hawken, where the player character will be bound inside the cockpit of a giant mech (soooo excited!) but concessions need to be made when it comes to a standard FPS.
That said, I asked Luckey if he'd been looking to integrating the Rift with wider motion-sensing hardware. "Yeah, on the fun prototyping side, I have a few things integrated into the Rift," he replied. "I have an omni-directional treadmill integrated into it in my garage, other motion sensing hardware too, I have a mocap suit...none of these things will probably make it across onto the consumer side, but just for playing around in R&D there are tons of cool things we can do.
"Take the omni-directional treadmill, for example. People have been working with those for some time, but the one thing that's not gotten any cheaper over the last 50 years or so is big heavy machinery that's used to move other big heavy things. It doesn't really work."
The point about price is a crucial one, and it's one that Oculus are not taking lightly. Luckey was keen to point out that many have trodden this road before, particularly from a design perspective, but that very few of those companies are still around because they simply priced themselves out of the market and failed to take consumer interests into consideration.
"We're gearing this up to be a consumer product," he said. "I mean we're pushing forward in terms of the technology, but we're very aware that it needs to be affordable. If we price ourselves out of the market then we're going to end up just like the dozens of other head mounted display companies out there who've made really high-performance but extremely expensive models in the tens of thousands of dollars. It's fun from a designer's perspective, but not for the consumer. If we have to put it up by an extra hundred to really make it great then we'll do it, but the main thing is finding a balance between creating a truly excellent product, and making it something that most gamers can afford."
Affordability is one consumer concern that Oculus are keenly keeping in mind, but so too is accessibility. With much of Rift's development team sporting contact lenses or glasses (Luckey himself is near-sighted which causes issues considering that "the Rift's focus is set out to infinity") can we expect the consumer model to be adjustable in terms of optic focus?
"If you're far-sighted you'll be ok, if you have perfect vision you'll be ok," replied Luckey. "At the moment, you might have a little bit of trouble if you're near-sighted as the focus is set out to infinity, but it's not a hard engineering problem to solve to be able to put in a feature where the focus would be adjustable like binoculars. Or we could have lens inserts for correcting vision. Those features probably won't make it into the dev kits because we're trying to get them ready really fast and we've only got a short period of time. But for the consumer version it will definitely be adjustable. I'm near-sighted so if anything I have to do it for myself!"
With the Rift headset on, Mars City is no longer jut a video game environment, and I'm no longer just a puppet-master, forcing a virtual marionette to jump, sprint, shoot, and dance when I tell it to. The first-person perspective is perfect: I'm looking out through virtual eyes, cut off from my own reality in terms of sight and sound and utterly focused on blasting the limbs off of Hellspawn. I forget for ten minutes that I'm sat in a swanky hotel suite in Cologne, I have to remind myself to breathe. I peer around a corner, turning my head in the process, and immediately jerk it back as I'm met by a 3D demon that's closer than comfort. Looking up into its eyes, I set my head once more and align my sights.
Taking the headset off and letting daylight flood in once more is disorienting. But then again, so was the looking at the 3DS the first time I saw it. The echoes of the experience stick with me for rather longer than I thought they would in all honesty; the Rift will take some getting used to, that's for sure. But although in the minutes that followed my return to reality my legs felt a little like jelly and my mind a little fuzzier than usual, I can't wait for my next visit.
"Most VR headsets have a pretty low field of view," Luckey tells me as we sit down following the demo. "They're like wearing a TV on your head: they're good for movies and TV maybe, but not really for immersing you into a game. The other big thing is that the Rift has really low tracker latency so when you move your head, the image moves in time with your head. It's not like you're moving your head and then the image follows. That's what a lot of other headsets with higher latency are doing: instead of feeling like you're in the game, it just feels like you're controlling the game with your head, and that's not nearly as immersive."
Nate Mitchell, Oculus' VP of Product, agrees.
"Yeah, in terms of the 'Elevator Pitch', I'd say that the Rift is the first device which really lets you step inside the virtual worlds and environments that you've always wanted to experience."
He's not wrong. With the Kickstarter target smashed in a matter of hours, the dev kits go out this December. At the turn of the year, we'll have a better idea of what those experiences might be. Luckey's psyched for the possibilities that could come with looking back rather than looking forward, though.
"It's almost more exciting to look back and be able to patch a bunch of old titles that you've wanted to play again. WipEout could be crazy. F-Zero would be insane." I present the idea of doing the Death Star Trench Run from Rogue Squadron II and we take a moment of silence to reflect on just how fantastic that would be. "One of the reasons we're making really intuitive SDKs is to make the issue of porting games across, making games compatible with the Rift, trivially easy," Luckey says, smiling.
Time will tell if he's right. For now, though, count me in as a Rift believer.