Japanese game developers create immersive virtual worlds with Oculus Rift

by Adam Miller

Special To The Japan Times

Oculus Rift is the true people’s choice in the virtual-reality community. From its grassroots upbringing through crowdfunding to its multibillion dollar buyout by Facebook last week, Palmer Luckey’s immersive headset, which tracks the head movements of the wearer to plunge them into virtual environments, has grabbed the attention of independent and international developers alike. Having lived through the rise and fall of many innovations that were reportedly the future of gaming, I was naturally skeptical of the Rift and its place in the industry, so I jumped at the chance to attend Osaka’s OcuFes on March 29 to find out more.

I was expecting OcuFes to be a huge and bustling event; what I got instead was a “festival” that took place in a small office, with a dozen or so designers showing off their wares to a select group of the public. Indeed, if you did not have the inclination to actively find out about the event, it would have passed by without a blip on your social radar.

Even so, there was still a sizeable crowd of people at the event who had just 15 minutes or so to peruse the various stalls, before being asked to wait outside so that the next cycle of curious customers could have a glance. Many waited for a second or third trip, and were as excited to talk with and probe the designers as they were to try out the wide range of games and experiences on offer.

This tight-knit community spirit perfectly encapsulates the community surrounding the Oculus Rift: determined, loyal, social and hungry to find out what is being developed on the as-yet-unreleased platform. Of those visiting the event, the majority were the rather stereotypical die-hard tech enthusiasts or otaku; young-to-middle-aged Japanese males who became visibly excited by some of the experiences on offer. There was a little scope in the demographic, with a handful of international guests, a few women and even one or two children. But for the most part, the developers and those trying out the Oculus seemed synonymous.

I got to see just a glimpse of the potential the system holds. Event organizer Ouka Ichimon (@oukaichimon on Twitter) has developed several games for the system but was showcasing only a short ski-jump game, something he described as “a very simple program” in which you plummet down a hill, at the end of which you physically jump in the air, the Oculus tracking your movement and altering your in-game jump distance accordingly.

Katsuomi Kobayashi of Frame Synthesis (framesynthesis.jp) had a driving simulator, which in which you try to park a car in a designated area. Mr. Kobayashi was noticeably anxious that his program be well received, so nervous in fact that for my very first experience with the Oculus Rift, he forgot to attach any lenses, so it was sickeningly blurry and I was left wondering why this vomit-inducing kit had gained so much traction. Once he had noticed his mistake he apologized profusely and I was able to reassess my rather harsh critique — although it must be said, motion sickness (with or without the lenses) is a side-effect many Rift users suffer from.

Another creator, known on Twitter as GOROman, had created MikuMikuAkushu, which allows you to share a room with virtual pin-up Hatsune Miku and was accompanied with a robotic hand, which you could shake to interact with the CGI idol. Although this mixing of the physical and digital worlds is obviously harmless, having the freedom to view a flawless CGI female from any angle, as well as the ability to touch her, seems bound to lead to less scrupulous experiences being made in the future.

One of my favorite ways in which the Oculus was used was by yytune of Nico-Tech (wiki.nicotech.jp), who had combined a high-performance PC running shooting game “Battlefield 4,” an airsoft replica rifle with a Wii Remote strapped to the barrel and a Rift to make an enjoyable and engaging application which could well cross over into a more mainstream audience. The Wii remote grafted to the barrel of the rifle allows you to aim the gun independently to the direction you are facing with the Oculus headset; a realistic if not confusing concept. The thumbstick on a Wii Nunchuk Controller held in your left hand allows you to move around. The heavy gun is obviously not ideal for long sessions of gaming, but the satisfying kickback you get with every shot fired makes the experience a memorable one.

The scope and potential of Oculus Rift is limited only by the imagination of the people willing to pour hours into independent projects, which are typically made available for free to the still-small community of owners of the Rift development kit. An improved version of the headset due in late 2014 or early 2015 will bring improved visual resolution and head tracking. But although the Rift was founded and supported by gamers and developers, I personally do not see it as the future of mainstream gaming; instead of being a bridge to immerse gamers in experiences, it feels like a barrier that stops that experience being a passive one. It is a struggle to put on the headgear, which has to be removed every time you need a break, instead of being able to punch the pause button and throw your controller to one side.

It seems Facebook is hoping to widen the Rift’s horizons and push the social aspects of the system, as Mark Zuckerberg (who has attracted far less vitriol for the deal in Japan than in the West) says he sees this as not just a new games system but “a new communication platform.” Time will tell whether his vision is enhanced by these high-tech goggles.