PAX 2012: Hardware Heaven – Hands on with the Oculus Rift and Wikipad

Artist's representation of final Oculus RiftGoing to PAX with an honest-to-goodness media badge is a very, very different experience from going just as a regular attendee. With great power comes great responsibility, yadda yadda… You feel the urge to interview everyone who will speak to you, fill up your schedule with Productive Stuff, network like crazy, and generally be Smart and Professional… even if you know that your awesome editor just wants you to go and have a good time and write about what interests you.

Having said that, it also meant I got to have some amazing access to the next wave of hardware and games, as well as the opportunity to speak to the best and brightest developers. If I wanted to cover everything in one article, it’d be a novel, so I thought I’d share my first-hand experience of some cool new tech toys and go more into the games I played in the next article.

Oculus Rift – A revolution in gaming

The early early prototype of the developer’s kit. Final version does not include duct tape.

One of the most impressive scoops of the expo was getting the chance to try the famous Oculus Rift – or, at least, its developer kit – for the first time. After being ushered into a room with CEO Brendan Iribe and lead Oculus designer/engineer Palmer Luckey, another journalist and I were presented with this incredibly light and compact VR goggle headset literally held together by duct tape; the Oculus team were very fast to reassure us that it was an early early (note the two early’s!) prototype of the developer kit and that the final developer kit would be a much more sleek and manufactured product. Still, even in this early phase, the weight and bulk of the device isn’t that much more than a good pair of ski goggles. Lightness has been an incredibly big priority for Luckey and the Oculus team. “People ask, ‘Why hasn’t VR worked in the past?’ Well, one of the reasons it hasn’t worked in the past is the things are so freaking heavy and complicated, and they’re just not comfortable.”

There were no such problems with the Oculus Rift; once on, there was no strain or fatigue at all. It was one of the most immersive experiences I’ve had in a video game. The camera control for Doom 3:BFG was tightly connected to the motions of my head, and there was absolutely no lag whatsoever. With headphones on, the “real” world completely faded away, and I felt like I was in the darkened bowels of the station. I was vaguely aware of the other journalist talking animatedly with Iribe and Luckey, but it was like some sort of muted otherworld utterly divorced from the darkened bowels of the space station I was wildly looking around in. The screens and lenses are at the optimal distance for filling the field of vision, and it even detected if you craned around behind you. It was absolutely incredible…

…and unfortunately, it made me completely motion sick! After about five minutes, I found my stomach getting extremely queasy, and I had to ask to conclude the demo. There was definitely some sort of disconnect between what my senses were telling me and what my internal GPS was telling me. If I tried it again, I think I might try standing up or even physically moving around. I felt so bad that here was the future of gaming and I was fighting the urge to ralph!

Still, the team was quick to reassure me that this was understandable, given that it took some time to get used to the controls (any use of the usual camera controls would send the camera swinging wildly) and that the goggles were meant to be calibrated precisely for the user (unfortunately, these were calibrated for 18-30-year-old men… curse you, demographic assumptions!) Still, I’m intrigued to see how the Oculus does. It has a pretty ingenious setup for getting its name out there, thanks to the brilliant idea of having a Kickstarter campaign specifically for developers rather than consumers; after all, not only do they ensure plenty of people will be able to make games for it, but every geek is going to be talking about it in the meantime! “We’re still a way out from the consumer version, but what we are focused on is the developer kit, and we are working as hard as we can to get that developer kit out by December,” Brendan Iribe said. I can already see that anyone making an FPS would eat this up, though I’m less sure how well it will work with 2D games or third person 3D games. Is it going to be the revolution in gaming it promises to be? Time will tell… but I can say that it’s probably going to take your FPSes to another level.

 

Wikipad – Mommy Needs A New Tablet

 

 

Another exciting piece of hardware I got to demo was the Wikipad, the first dedicated gaming Android tablet. Not that it can’t be used for non-gaming purposes – James Bower, the CEO, said that he thought one of the big selling points would be that gamers would gravitate towards it for its flexibility, or parents would buy it for gamer children with the thought that they could use it to do homework or make presentations in class. What makes the Wikipad unique, however, is the controller casing which can attach to the tablet, as shown in the pictures. I was surprised to discover how light and comfortable the controller actually was; while you may think that wide tablet + wide controller would feel awkward and bulky, it actually sat remarkably well in the hand and added next to no weight to the tablet itself. It feels like a dream, too, and the controls respond quickly with nary a hint of lag. I didn’t get too long with the demo game – Max Payne – but it didn’t feel particularly awkward. While the Wikipad is not releasing an early dev kit – developers will get their hands on it at the same time as players – there will still be a large selection of launch games. Not only is the Wikipad compatible with all Bluetooth controller Android games, but Sony has recently announced that Playstation Mobile will be available on the Wikipad as well, meaning you’ll be treated to a great selection of Playstation and Playstation-esque games that, of course, use a controller by default.

In all the rigmarole over the controller, it’s easy to lose sight of the tablet itself, which is probably even more impressive. For one thing, it is almost disgustingly thin and light. I held it in my hand and thought it was about to float away. For another thing, it has a very simple and yet extremely useful design feature: a rectangular ridge on the rear of the tablet that’s just perfect for giving your fingers traction to hold onto the thing. Bower explained that it was designed to make it easier for players to hold the device with one hand, and it’s the sort of subtle addition that, once you feel it, you’ll wonder why everyone isn’t doing it on their tablets. The guts of the tablet includes an NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor, so it’s able to handle some pretty hardcore graphics and streaming game content. If Playstation Mobile is a go, could Steam be far behind?

If you took only a brief glance at it, it would be easy to write off the Wikipad as some sort of needless experiment. After all, you have your discrete “spheres” of gaming; if you want short touchscreen games, you go to the tablet, and if you want lengthier controller gaming, you go to a console, so why mix the two? But Bower’s company clearly has their reasoning, and it makes sense.  Firstly, it gets past the problems of having hands all over your primary visual display. “I think there’s a lot of frustration from gamers about having to have your fingers over the screen. When your fingers are on the screen, you’re inhibiting the experience of the actual gameplay. And so, by removing that and having an actual physical control, not only do you have a better visual experience, but also you have much more control over the gameplay. The touchscreen can only do so much.” Secondly, it offers a much bigger screen real estate than the DS, Vita or other handheld game systems can. While Bower agreed that existing systems were great on the portability front, “the screen and the experience is quite small… whereas this being a 10.1 inch screen, if you look at the ratio between your eyes and this and how wide the screen is and compare it to if you have a bigscreen TV,  it’s very similar.” He’s absolutely right; the large screen in the player’s hands ends up taking up about the same amount of field of vision as a TV screen several feet away. Once you get used to your hands being further apart than normal, it feels “right” and comfortable in a way I didn’t expect.

Frankly, I think I might be sold. I don’t have a tablet, and I’d been thinking that I’d go with the tried and true iPad if I ever did get one, but with the barely-there weight and mass of the Wikipad, the little design touches that make it easy to use, and the wider range of game design options open thanks to the control pad… plus, you know, its ability to just run regular apps and stuff may make this a solid contender for Next Massive Purchase of M’s.

 

 

“But M,” I hear you say, “this is all well and good, but what about the games you saw at PAX Prime? Are you going to do any coverage on that?”

Oh… oh yes. Yes, I am.

*commences evil laughter*

Did you get a chance to try out the Oculus or Wikipad at PAX or other trade shows? What did you think? Any other cool tech gadgets coming up that you’re excited about?

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