Darknet at Oculus Connect

I just got back from Oculus Connect, and I can report that Oculus did an incredible job with their first conference. There was new hardware to try out, lots of interesting and useful talks, and tons of virtual reality demos cramming the halls. It was pretty much VR heaven.

Unlike PAX or the various demo events I’ve attended, I wasn’t an exhibitor at Connect, and it was nice to relax and just be part of the audience for once. That said, this was my first real opportunity to show off Darknet on the Gear VR dev kit, and I did end up demoing the game to a lot of other attendees. (Pictures of the dev kit are discouraged, so you’ll have to take my word for it.) Darknet had a few other cameos at the event, showing up on the on-site Gear VR content video and on the big screen during one of the keynotes.

The first evening of the conference coincided with the inaugural Proto Awards. The Protos are a new set of awards meant to honor excellence in virtual reality content, and they got off to a great start. The awards show was swanky (I was underdressed), and the host of the evening (Thomas Middleditch, star of HBO’s Silicon Valley) kept everybody laughing. Darknet was nominated for three awards, and I’m proud to say that it ended up receiving the Proto for Best Gameplay!

The Proto for the Best Overall Experience ended up going to Zombies on the Holodeck by Survios. I got to stop by the Survios office to try it out myself the next evening (thanks guys!), which was awesome.

All that was fun, but the clear highlight of the show was the new hardware on display. This included the final version of the Gear VR Innovator Edition, which I got to try for the first time. It was just as great as I expected, and the games I tried (Land’s End and Omega Agent) were impressive.

Still, the show was stolen by the reveal of Crescent Bay, Oculus’s latest public prototype. Oculus did a great job of ensuring that everybody at the conference could try it out for themselves without the expected hours-long wait. I got my demo soon after it was announced, and holy shit. It’s really, really good.

I generally like to position myself as a “VR realist”; I appreciate VR as it exists now, but I don’t want to be consumed by the hype and lose perspective. I try to be cautious, to keep in mind the risks that are inherent in a new platform, etc. etc. Crescent Bay has made it very hard to keep that sort of analytical distance.

There were several very short demos that were shown, and every one seems designed to inspire developers to make different types of games for VR. One demo featured an enormous dinosaur towering over the player. Another was an animated miniature model of a city. Another was a beautiful nature landscape rendered in a bright low-poly style.

Oddly enough, the most powerful demo for me was a small, simple room. It was full of pipes and technical controls, like a boiler room or a submarine. What made the demo so incredible is that it marked the first time that I began to really feel “presence”, the golden buzzword of VR. I felt like I was there in some subconscious way, and my instinct was to start walking down the hallway to explore this strange new space. The person running the demo had to stop me from walking into a wall in the real world.

Plenty has been written about “the magic of presence” already. I don’t think that more words will convince anyone. The most powerful argument that Oculus can muster is a demo like the one that I just had. Once people experience presence, they can truly claim an informed opinion about the technology.

My assumption is that Crescent Bay is a more-or-less feature-equivalent version of the eventual consumer-ready Oculus Rift, much like the earlier Crystal Cove prototype was for the DK2. If that’s the case, it’s hard for me to imagine a scenario where VR fails. Maybe the technology doesn’t work as well under less-ideal conditions. Maybe it doesn’t translate well to a seated experience. Maybe input will be a major limitation. But it seems to me that the most likely scenario is that Oculus will keep improving their product, keep impressing everyone who tries it, and eventually carve out a permanent space for consumer VR in the world.


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A game by E McNeill.