Do You Even Rift, Brah?

Last week I was unexpectedly given an opportunity to try the Oculus Rift for the first time. While I was out traveling for my job one of my coworkers invited me over for dinner and to take a look at her husband’s new Oculus Rift. Conspiring with a friend of his, she had been able to get a version made available to developers and give it to him as a Christmas gift.

I’m going to stop right there for a moment because some of you are thinking right now, “did I just read that correctly?” So in case you missed it the first time and find yourself incapable of re-reading a sentence for obscure but completely legitimate ethical reasons I will repeat what I said:

The wife. Bought an Oculus Rift. As a Christmas gift. For her husband.


Anyway, after dinner my coworker’s husband (let’s call him Wade or Owen, something like that) set me up in front of his computer and lead me through my first game session with the Rift. Before being invited over I was not all that excited about this new technology. I found it interesting in the same way I would consider virtual keyboards or robot vacuums from Brookstone novel or clever, but I did not take it seriously nor did I ever consider owning one. However once the goggles were securely on my noggin and the demo program had been fired up, the Oculus Rift had my full attention.

There was a moment about five seconds after the menu screen appeared when I realized the desk I was seeing was not the desk physically sitting in front of me. Despite the simplicity of the graphics my brain had unwittingly believed the construct before me to be the same desk my hands were resting on. Wade, my gracious host and tour guide invited me to explore my surroundings and then started the first of two demos.

Demo number one was a simple roller coaster program in which I was free to sit back and enjoy the surrounding landscape. Let me tell you it was breathtaking and not because the graphics were beautiful. Despite the obvious flaws in the rendering of the environment I nevertheless felt like I was occupying the space my eyes were seeing. First I was drawn straight ahead to the English castle the roller coaster had been built around. Then as I pivoted my head in the physical world the virtual world fluidly materialized around me in every direction and I discovered additional towers and stone walls wherever I turned.

Then there were the mountains. Off in the distance I could see snowcapped mountains and all I could do was gawk in wonder. I’m sure my repeated exclamations of “unbelievable” and “this is amazing” as I swiveled in a desk chair did not look nerdy or inconsistent with my actual surroundings at all. Not in the slightest. At this point the “click, click, click” of the roller coaster began to slow and I turned my head back to center just in time for the first of several near vertical drops.

My stomach lurched. I’m not kidding, my gut had an almost identical response to this imagined descent as it would have had I actually been riding a roller coaster. Have you ever been in that half-sleep state when you have just about dozed off but for whatever reason you feel like you are falling and suddenly your body jerks in response?

Anyone? Anyone?


That’s what this experience was like. Apparently my brain is so reliant on my eyes for determining reality that my body responded in kind. It was a little unnerving, though not as much as the dinosaur (that comes later).

Next Wade loaded another demo, this one titled “Don’t Let Go.” I was hoping to embody Kate Winslet in this one so I could personally let Leonardo DiCaprio sink into the ocean but no dice. Instead the object was to hold the two “control” keys on the keyboard and continue holding them no matter what happened.

Easy right?

Well it is so long as you aren’t concerned about peeing your pants in the apartment of someone you barely know. In the game you are sitting at a desk in an office. There is a laptop in front of you, a door to the right, and few cabinets or shelves along the wall to the left. What you experience next is a series of scenarios meant to spook you into letting go of the keys.

First the game goes easy on you and sends a swarm of buzzing flies or bees. It’s hard to tell which exactly; the graphics on everything look like they were created circa 1999, but that does not stop your brain from believing. Which is a bit startling to realize it isn’t so much detail as it is spatial depth that convinces your mind that the surroundings are real.

After the flies exit the room the door opens and in walks a velociraptor. Now, I know he was not real. And I’m sure you know that he was not real. But my brain was pretty sure I was wrong and decided my fight or flight instincts should be set to threat level orange-you glad you didn’t drink a lot of water beforehand. The instinctual response was not as strong as it would have been had a real predator walked into the room, but as the dinosaur slowly approached my side I had to intentionally remind myself it wasn’t real so that I could remain calm enough to keep hold of the control keys.

From there it only got worse and I won’t bore you with the details but I did manage to hold on until the very end. However the anxiety brought on by anticipating the next unknown challenge was strong enough that at one point I considered letting go just to end the experience. When Wade asked me if I wanted to try the Alien: Isolation demo next I politely declined. I had only packed enough clean pants for three days and I was already running dangerously low on dignity, thank you very much. However I did take him up on Elite: Dangerous.

I’m not a space sim guy. That sort of game has never really appealed to me. But as soon as Wade (did we decide on Wade, or was it Owen?) booted up the game I was instantly a fan of the genre. And my gracious host didn’t just have the game and the Oculus either, no ma’am. He had the full cockpit setup complete with joystick and throttle which added to the experience. I could have spent hours flying in and around the asteroid field, watching the space debris float Elite: Dangerously close to my ship, but unfortunately I only had about ten minutes of time left before I had to leave. However in that short timespan the word “immersion” took on new meaning. I was no longer in a cozy, one bedroom apartment in the American Midwest. I was a lone pilot braving uncharted territory in deep space; I was a small child living the dream of riding in the cockpit of an X-Wing with Luke along the surface of the Death Star.

I was Lost in Space.

Surprisingly (to me at least) I left the apartment excited about the new tech and amazed at just how tangible the virtual world it created felt. Nothing was rendered with enough detail to fool me– not really— but it didn’t seem to matter. It is sobering to realize as much faith as I place on the veracity of what my eyes see and what my mind interprets that they can be so easily fooled and in the right context will “believe” anything. In fact, that reality gives me pause when considering whether this technology will primarily be beneficial or prodigiously destructive in the lives of individuals and culture as a whole once it is released to the general public and potentially integrated into our daily lives. Nevertheless, I cannot also help but feel a sense of childlike wonder over all the previously impossible possibilities made available by the Oculus Rift. I know personally there are dozens of fantasy and sci-fi MMO worlds I would love to experience in the same way I was able to travel through space in Elite and I eagerly anticipate the day when that becomes a reality.

Of course, not all of us have something new and exciting on the horizon. I feel a little bad for my new friend Wade. Poor guy, his Christmas gifts from here on out are going to be all downhill.


3 thoughts on “Do You Even Rift, Brah?

  1. Hmm. Somehow whenever i read a reaction on the Oculus Rift, it sounds quite similar. It seems like there are indications that i will have to get it once it gets released, although i fear that this spells doom for my current GPU.


    • It really is one of those “you have to see it to believe it” technologies. I still don’t think I’ll own one, but then again I never thought I’d own a smart phone (he said, typing on his iPhone). I didn’t get much into it on this post in detail because 1500 words was pushing it, but I have a lot of concerns about the tech that I wanted to write about as well. Like most advances it’s morally neutral with the potential for a lot of good AND a lot of evil/ harm (excellent training for next gen surgeons vs. people hospitalized for experiencing genuine shock over a game, etc.)

      One of my biggest concerns is how this will further affect how we objectify one another (and make no mistake, we are ALL guilty of this in some form or another). What we are exposed to repeatedly affects the brain and how we think and if that’s true of film and video games, how much more destructive will it be to expose our minds to violent and abusive scenarios when the brain at least half believes the experience is real?

      As for the system demands, I really don’t know what they are. But it may not be as high as you think, at least not right now. The way he described it to me, it’s running the same graphical quality as a modern game but split into two screens which is why it doesn’t look like it. Now once they get it to look as good as a modern game (meaning it would probably require twice the GPU power) then we’ll definitely have problems. I’m not very knowledgable on these things however so I could be explaining it wrong.


      • Perhaps it’s because i have not experienced it yet, but i don’t really have your fears. Humanity has proven more than once that it is quite adaptable. To take just one example of a list of many options, despite predictions of very educated minds, the human brain can process moving at speeds higher than 30 kilometers per hour without taking any damage, after all. 😀

        Or to be a bit closer to the topic, already the written letter, the printed book, the telephone, TV and the internet were considered the one thing to end all direct social intereaction and bring the end of civilisation. Despite the doomcalling, neither of them wrecked the havoc it was supposed to bring and several of them actually enhance and enrich human interaction and help for socializing, even. (Heck, wouldn’t there be the internet and a MMO i play [The Secret World], the woman now living with me would still be in a different nation. )

        Of course, old people like me (i am over 40) are supposed to worry and condemn everything new, but i also see that people generally use the new technologies reasonably. (The bigger worry here actually is that many people are not aware how they threaten and wreck their privacy, but i doubt the 3D technology would change this aspect. )

        The other aspect the Oculus for me is interesting is, how will it affect future gaming? I have read reports of people trying different games. Anything where you were at a “fixed position”, like driving a car in a racing game or piloting a spaceship in Elite Dangerous was considered to be great, but any “free” movement, especially from first person perspective, was reported to be disorienting and nauseating. So i wonder, will the technology still be improved that much? (I have read of a kind of “threadmill” with very spillery shoes, where you are fixed in place but feel like you move, but i somehow doubt that this thing will really reach the mass market. ) Or will we rather see a huge return of simulator style games, so finally we’ll again have many flight simulators, space simulators and all the likes available? (Genres which seemed long dead, killed by first person games.)

        I hope for the second, but am absolutely unable to make any prediction, so i just can remain curious.

        Last not least, on the technology part: the Oculus currently has a rather low resulution per eye. Thus GPS demands are actually quite low, but it’s said that the marketing version should have a significally better resolution. At the same time, the 3D technology is even more unforgiving to a reduction of framerate than a traditional game. If a traditional game gets a little choppy, only the picture on your screen is a little less smooth. With the Rift, your whole world “stutters” in that case. I can imagine that this can be very disturbing and i think you can easily get dizzy from that. So if the Rift at some time gets into the same range of resolution of a normal screen, the GPU has to deliver two pictures (rendered from positions a few centimeters apart), each of them at a minimal frequenzy of 60 Hz. This might be feasible with the best GPUs on the market at the moment, but even for them you’ll have to reduce your detail level and so on. So if the Rift sees widespread use, i expect many currently used GPUs going into retirement.


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