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I "know" how big a pig is in Minecraft.

Size takes on new meaning in VR.

I now know how big a pig is in Minecraft. Minecrift allows you to experience Minecraft via the Oculus Rift, and delivers an experience that is currently riding high on the list of things you can try that present a high level of immersion, or the feeling of "being there".

So far, I'm glad that my trials with the Oculus Rift have been private. Anyone watching me would get very bored, very quickly. I find myself spending long, long periods of time just looking hard at things. The corners of rooms, the side of a table, behavior that they'd lock you up for in the real world.Unless you've tried it and were moved by it, it is hard to convey the feeling it gives you, but I'll try here:

Even though this is a first generation prototype of this new generation of VR, as reported, the Oculus Rift's effect on the mind is startling. Before actually trying the Rift, like many people likely reading this, I've read several dozen extensive "first hand" accounts of what using the rift is like, that and watched a similar number of online videos, documenting people trying out.

While my anticipation was very high, I had tried to sober myself a bit to the realities that "hype" and early enthusiasm often lead to something that misses the high bar set by imagination. After reading the gushing previews of Valve's VR work and the best of show reception that Oculus's "Crystal Cove" prototype received at CES2013, and hearing how much "better" it was than the first gen developer kid, I had expected something that would be compelling but still fell very short of immersion.

And..... I... was.. wrong.

It is little wonder that this little device has garnered such attention. It is truly a wonder of our age. I feel like I stare into it with the same kind of awe that early man must have had when looking at firelight.

Despite what you may have read, the screen quality on the current DK1 rift is not terrible. This might be a generational thing. If you've spent thousands of hours playing Mode 13h / 320 X 200, games, you might still have a good frame of reference for how good we've got it now and how far we've come. I've heard many complaints about the field of view, which I find very odd, as I stare at this 27" monitor from 2 feet away, I can tell you that the rift occupies a space that probably the equivalent of replacing this screen with something about 37 inches, meaning - it well fills out most of the visual space in front of me.

The screen door effect is there (this is the ability to see lines between the individual elements that make up the screen.) I was surprised how little this bothered me. I have an affinity for things digital and pixel representations, so this almost has an attractive quality to it for me. In some ways, I'm glad to have the reminder that this is a simulation, and here's why:

The first demo I tried was Redframe. I had heard that it was well done and very immersive, I also heard that it demanded nothing more from the user than to slowly walk around a living room. Sounded perfect for what would likely be a clumsy first Rift session. I clicked the batch file and saw a flicker on the lenses of the nearby waiting Rift. I lifted the rift to my head an held it there.

My breath caught and simply stopped. If you've experienced Redframe, you'll know that there's a model ship sitting in a corner of the room on a table. This happened to be the first thing I saw in VR. (the symbolism of the moment wasn't lost on me...)

Something that seems to be taken for granted in a lot of articles on the Rift is just how compelling the effect of stereopsis is with this new device. We've been playing fluid 3D first person games since the mid 90's and while the 3D has gotten better and better, it simply cannot compare to how compelling the visuals are when viewing a scene through the Oculus Rift.

My first few LONG minutes in Redframe, didn't involve any movement. It was far enough to simply rotate my head and survey the scene. The nearby model ship was fascinating, the sails an the rigging all so solidly "real" and in sync with my attempts to observe it different angles.

You are very aware of your position in space, for the first time, I had a very good sense of exactly how tall I was in comparison to the other objects in the room. The ship came up to about my waist, the bookshelf close by was about 3 feet away.

Anyone who is a graphic artist is about to have a wonderful new way to have their work freshly appreciated. There is something about the Rift Experience that makes you want to carefully observe things that you would have otherwise blown past (or blown up) without a second thought in traditional first person game experiences. When you see books on the shelf, because they are so close to being part of the "real", it becomes important to know what the books are about. You want to get up close and attempt to read the spines, you want to discover if any of the books that your own might also be sitting on this stranger's shelf.

I had three very big "wow" moments during the first session of the demo.

The first was when I traversed the room and made in to the far corner. There is a rubbing of some kind on the wall, something that could be from the fourteen hundreds, and a night table with a lamp by the bed. When I made it into the corner, I was struck by the fact that as I approached the wall, I could make out make out the space BEHIND the night table, and see that the lamp was plugged in, tracing the cord with my vision until I could see where it connected to the wall. This had a huge impact on me. Prior to the Rift, players would be very hard pressed to be able to view this "secret" space behind objects. You might be able to position your character close the wall and crouch, but it would be far more trouble than it would be worth. Here, it was natural - the Oculus Rift allows you to get closer and more intimate with the details of a room, you can observe the subtle relationships between objects in space, and mundane places like the back of a night table are suddenly very inexplicably compelling. Hidden object games are going to have a strong place in this world.

My second "wow" moment followed shortly after. On my way out of that corner, I managed to move myself RIGHT face first into the curtains. If you were to stand up now in real life and walk to wall, close to the point where your nose was almost touching it, if you share the same sensibilities as me, you will get a bit of an odd feeling, something slightly akin to claustrophobia. We don't like to be face to face with large surfaces, it obscures our vision and you start to feel a bit uncomfortable, you get strong urge to take a step back. This exact feeling was strongly present while using the Rift. You feel like the wall (or curtains in this case) is right in front of you, and you can almost feel your lungs constricting a bit as you try to move yourself away to make more room. I imagine that there will be compelling simulations of cave exploring / ventilation shaft crawling that will feel distinctly uncomfortable.

My third "wow" moment was when I realized that the Redframe demo had another room available through the doorway and around the corner. I've explored hundreds of FPS games with thousands of rooms, made my way through castles and starships, and yet here, in this living room, I was suddenly floored by the idea that, right around that corner, there was a whole other room that I might explore and that there could be anything in there. I am VERY grateful that the Redframe demo does not have any personalities or creatures within it, I'm not sure if I was quite prepared to deal with any surprises at that point.

Shortly after Redframe, I was lucky enough to read up about how compelling the "Blocked In". This demo is incredible. It places you at a work table, and presents you with a cluttered room to observe and an astonishing visual out the window of the city you find yourself in. The whole thing is very odd, surreal and compelling. The window view is especially well done. I find myself visiting this room on a daily basis now and just staring out the window. Despite the apocalyptic destruction depicted outside, it is very soothing and has started to feel oddly like a personal space that I "know" and like. The creator Daniel Ernst is from the Netherlands, which according the crew at Oculus VR, is the leading nation for interest in VR ( a very curious bit of trivia. ) If Daniel is any indication, we will be given some great gifts from this nation. (hopefully Canada will be able to make our mark as well!)

I've noticed that this early type of VR experience seems to generate a kind of hunger in a person. Having been given a taste, you are eager to seek out new, similar or better experiences.

Minecrift was next. I'm familiar with the game and the creatures within it and was blown away by how the Rift allows you to gain a sense of scale that was missing before. Pigs litter the landscape in the game, and prior to the Rift I'd perceived them as being quite small. Wearing the rift, I now know that they actually come up to a little lower than mid-torso. These are some pretty serious pigs and I give them a bit more space than I did previously. If anyone gets the chance to try Mindcrift, I'd recommend you take a few moments and disable the HUD, just turn it all off for a bit. It gives you a nice immersive moment and allows you to really connect with your surroundings. I'd also recommend that you be prepared to take the rift on and off a lot when you are first setting up your game. Don't force yourself to do all the menu navigation via the Rift unless you enjoy having your senses punished.

Right now I'm most eager to see Daniel Ernst's next creation, but beyond this, I'm most interested in knowing more about the various projects everyone is working on, especially those that are designed to convey a sense of immersive space. Feel free to drop me a line on twitter @id_r_mcgregor or in the comments here, I will do my best to get back to you.

If anyone wants to say hi, I can been reached on Twitter at @ID_R_McGregor, or you link to me in Google+ if you happen to be one of the 300 million people using the service.


- by Robert McGregor, February 2014