Oculus Rift: Hands (and feet)-on with the next step in video game tech

New developments in virtual reality technology give players a more interactive gaming experience. Post Buzz's Hayley Tsukayama tries out the latest gadgets from Oculus VR and Virtuix at 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show. (Zoeann Murphy & Hayley Tsukayama/The Washington Post)

Most gamers have probably thought, at hour 15 or so of a marathon session, that it would be cool to make something that lets you really step into the game. Well, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey actually made that thought a reality — a virtual reality, that is.

The Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that looks like a pair of seriously strange ski goggles, is the product of Luckey’s experiments with electrical engineering and the human brain. Put it on, and it feels like you’ve been transported into the game you’re playing. In the demonstrations Oculus showed off at CES in Las Vegas on Wednesday, that meant either sitting in front of a fiery demon and a lake of lava or finding yourself in the cockpit of a spaceship engaged in battle.

That level of immersion is almost hard to wrap your head around. As I played the spaceship demo, Luckey advised me to fly under my enemies. That forced me to break out of my normal, rigid TV-centric gaming stance and crane my neck up to see my opponent pop into view above me, then move my head quickly to track it as it shot across the screen.

And the device is getting better. At this year’s CES, Oculus is showing a new prototype of its Rift virtual reality goggles, code-named “Crystal Cove,” which can tell not only where you’re looking as you play, but also whether you’re leaning back, forward or to the side. So when you want to give the controls a closer look, you can lean in, your chair, to do it. If you want to peek around the corner, just tilt and lean as you would in real life.

The clarity is truly impressive, as is the fact that I could wear the device without getting a hint of motion sickness. Oculus achieves that stability using something called a “low-persistence” display, Luckey said, which essentially means that Rift wearers can turn their heads and look around their environment without the kind of motion blur that would betray that you aren’t actually looking at real objects.

The Rift is not only a crazy experience on its own -- it’s also opening up a world of new possibilities when used in conjunction with other devices.

Over at the booth for Virtuix, the company is using the Rift in demos of its treadmill-like gaming platform, called the Omni, which translates every step you take on the platform into ones you take on screen.

The platform is essentially a very slippery, person-sized bowl that slopes up to about your ankles and lets you step and turn in any direction with the aid of some special shoes. The shoes -- soled with sensors and a felt-like material -- allow you a wide range of options for movement. Rigid supports keep you from falling flat on your back.

Virtuix’s chief executive, Jan Goetgeluk, gave me about two minutes of training after closing a circular support rail around me. Walking in the shoes was difficult at first, but quickly became second nature. It felt vaguely like I was using a baby walker, with one hand on the rail to steady me at all times. The Omni also comes with a harness, though this reporter was a little too short for the floor model. Retail models will come with paddles to adjust the height, Goetgeluk said.

With the Rift in place, a fake gun in my hand and Call of Duty up on screen, I started gaming. I thought that I would have trouble adjusting to the virtual environment, but it was stunning how intuitive it became to turn in place, change the direction of my pursuit and aim to shoot. I had been worried going into the demos that the experience would feel disorienting or that I would get dizzy, problems I often have on traditional shooters that require quick reflexes and faster response times from the in-game cameras. But actually being in the game and at least feeling in control of my view and actions seemed to keep that problem at bay. Though spinning too much in the Omni while wearing the Rift could tangle you up in cords pretty quickly.

The devices aren’t perfect, particularly on the aesthetic side. While you’re playing, you can look incredibly odd to people who aren’t literally in your own little world, especially with the Rift over your eyes and your scuffling feet in the Omni. But both firms have tapped the potential for something truly transformative -- and that’s something hardcore gamers can really appreciate.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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