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I was elated to have once again been invited to attend the second Oculus Connect 2 VR developer conference held on September 23rd - 25th 2014, in Hollywood California. This year rather than writing pages and pages of blog entries, I decided to focus more on videos and photos, to help me capture my fond memories. I have however, written down my impressions of the Oculus Touch controllers and recapped my experience with demoing them, this text can be found in the paragraphs below.
My video diary of OC2 can be viewed here.
My OC2 conference photos can be viewed here.
September 23rd, 2015 : Oculus Touch Controller (Toybox) Demo
Of all the experiences, announcements, demos, lectures, workshops etc.. that I was looking forward to at this years Oculus Connect 2 conference, that chance to try the new Oculus Touch controllers, was my most highly anticipated. During the DK1 days, I had managed to get a Wiimote controller working (with Glovepie) to play Half-Life 2 VR, I also had the chance to try out the STEM controller prototypes at last year's Connect Conference, and being a bit of an old school FPS fan, I had spent countless hours playing Doom 1,2 & 3 in VR (again with the DK1), just using a gamepad (mostly using face-aim). In terms of being VR input mechanisms, they were not without their limitations. The idea that Oculus has spent some considerable time researching and building a low latency, wireless, 6 degree of freedom hand controller system, seemed like a dream come true. Up until now, interaction from within VR experiences, seemed somewhat contrived, as developers have been forced to use control schemes reliant on old 2D paradigms (keyboard, mouse, joysticks etc..). And while this is certainly not a deal breaker for an enjoyable VR experience, considering how awesome even passive VR can be, for standing experiences particularly, it can, at times, leave a lot to be desired.
My first experience with the Touch controllers, was to be the Toybox demo I had scheduled on the first day of the conference. And to be honest, being a bit of an FPS fan, I really wanted to play something that would allow me to blast zombies with shotguns for my first Touch experience (we didnt know it at the time, but this kind of experience, albeit without zombies, was to be made available to us on day 2 of the conference, with a world-first exclusive demoing of the awe inspiring 'Bullet Train' demo). I had read a little bit about the Toybox demo, the fact that it was an open sandbox, possibly muti-player experience, where you basically pick up toys/objects and play around with them, with no discerable objectives, goals, or game mechanics involved. I wasn't sure if what we were getting to play with would be exactly the same, so I went in with an open mind, and somewhat modest expectations, reassuring myself that surely we would be able to blast zombies at a later point during the conference.
With the controllers in my hands, the (Oculus CV1!) hmd strapped on and adjusted, I opened my eyes, I look down, and simultaneously raise my hands (this was the point of the demo after all), and there they were, a somewhat simplistically rendered pair of blue glowing disembodied hands. But they were "my" hands! Somehow as graphically unrealistic as they were, the smoothness and responsiveness of the tracking , and the lack of imprecisely calculated IK arms gitching all over the place, plus the lightness of the controllers (the importance of this cannot be overstated, because at times I forgot I was actually holding any kind of controller), all these elements seemed to combine in to a thoroughly convincing experience. It seemed as my brain was more than willing to accept these digital extremities as my own hands, at least for the purpose of meaningful interaction within the virtual world I now found myself in. Is this what can be described as "hand presence", I wasn't sure, but within moments, my enthusiasm level increased dramatically.
Shortly after becoming acclimatised to seeing my own hands represented convincingly in VR for the first time in 2 years, I became aware of a floating head, and matching pair of hands about 2 meters in front of me, facing me, convincingly animated, and appearing to look at me, studying me. When "it" noticed that I had stopped staring at my own hands in awe, "it" politely greeted me (I forget the exact words). Now, I was well aware that this might be a multiplayer simulation, but also considered that this could be some sort of tutorial level with an AI "helper", so with my tongue firmly in my cheek, I returned the polite greeting, and then boldy asked "are you a real person?". The other head deleivered a humurous respose that I dont think would have been quite the same in any other form of traditional media. I saw "it" look around the virtual room, then look down at "it's" own hands, and then around the room again, before fixing it's gaze upon me again. With upturned palms, hands moving up, "it" made a sort of shrugging gesture, and replied "well, I think I am.". This was a profound moment for me, the playful humour of this quick exchange would have been all but lost, were it not for the manner in which my VR companion's gestures, head movents, and hand movements, combined to humourously mimic self doubt, when asked about his own human identity. A few seconds into this demo, and I was already seeing, what I believe to be ground breaking potential for human to human communication in shared virtual 3D spaces. And to think, we hadnt even started colaboratively blowing things up yet!
So rather that getting involved in some sort of VR Turing test, my companion proceeded to brief me on the usage of the controllers, and this didnt take long at all, as it was all extremely intuitive to say the least. I was basically just using my hands after all. He asked me to gesture and point, and "thumbs up" to proceed, it was all so natural, I barely had to think about anything. As previously mentioned, at times I forgot I was actually using controllers (they were very light, and just sort of hang off your hands when you are not actively trying to grip them). Next I was picking things up and stacking them, throwing them around, attempting to juggle, we were handing stuff back and forth between us, talking, sharing, collaborating, playing together in this shared space, in a completely convincing and totally natural way. (" stack some boxes on top of my foundation", "i lost my lighter can I borrow yours", or "can you give me a light?", "take this racquet and return my serve", "here, catch this frisbee", " try and shoot me with the pistol" were just some of the suggestions uttered). Now clearly some activities were easier to perform well compared to others, some things got better with practice, but it is worth pointing out that this is a reflection of the controller's natural and realistic feel, rather than a shortcoming. For example, if your are not good at table tennis or (like me) throwing and catching frisbees in real life, then you probably will not magically become skilled in these activities in VR, and surely that is how it should be in a realistic sandbox demo/simulation. However, it will obviously be up to individual developers, to decide how easy or realistic/difficult to make these interactions, kind of like how aim-assist works in tradition FPS games. This came to mind, as after just a few seconds of practice, I became quite adept at throwing and catching frisbees, much better that I could do in real life, and this was probably because the software had been quite forgiving with the throw-catch mechanic, in the name of making the experience more fun and approachable. For an experience that didnt have any real purpose, it was incredibly fun, not least because I was aware of how ground breaking this whole interaction was. When I first tried the DK1, I really thought (after previous years of disapointment), this is what VR should be like. I thought the same when I got hold of my DK2, and again when I tried the Cresecent Bay demo at last year's conference. But now after experienceing my hands in VR, the whole potential for VR experiences has taken a huge step forward, and not just because of a rapid increase in graphical fidelity (the CV1 headset probably deserves it's own separate blog post). Meaningfully and naturally interacting with the virtual world, instead of being a passive viewer, or using now-outdated (in my opinion) input mechanisms, is hugely important, and I beleive that Oculus have nailed this for first generation consumer VR with the Touch controllers.
And the end of the demo, I made of point of thanking my VR companion, and offering to virtually shake his hand (while still in the demo), which he did, and it oddly felt real, for reasons I can't really begin to understand. After stepping back into reality, I was gently guided down the hall and introduced to another staff member, in another room. I wasn't told why I was meeting this particular person, and perhaps I was still dazed from my abrupt return to reality after 18 minutes or so in the simulation.But after a about 30 seconds, I realized that I was speaking to the other person from inside the demo. Even after confirming his identity, I still had trouble understanding this was the same person. The blue glowing disembodied head and hands, seemed to have developed their own personality in VR, and my very recent memory of "him" didnt seem to match this real person I was now conversing with. Perhaps, it was the graphical/visual mismatch, or the fact that were now engaged in a civilized conversation as opposed to throwing/shooting/blowing things up (rather frantically towards the end). This gave me some interesting food for thought. In (hopefully) a few short years from now, when we are all interacting virtually in the metaverse, will we all be the same people as we are in real-life, and will be recongnizable as the same people (ignoring any visual mismatch, assuming we all the option to use close-to photo realistic avatars) as in real life? Will we even want to be the same people? How differently will we behave towards each other, knowing that our shared space and interactions are not truly real? I am not really certain, but I do know it is going to be a lot of fun cooperativly blasting zombies in VR with friends and strangers alike.