Exploring Virtual Reality in Doom 3 BFG

I really wasn't sure what to expect when I entered John Carmack's virtual reality demo suite this weekend at QuakeCon. I had missed his VR presentation at E3, so in my head, the only experience I could pull from was in my teenage days, strapping on a huge heavy headset and shooting at wire-frame monsters and vehicles. I had heard Carmack's keynote where he talked about his attempts with VR and I had watched Palmer Luckey's Oculus Rift Kickstarter blow through its goal. But, neither prepared me for what I saw on the table next to the computer running Doom 3 BFG. Held together with hot glue and duct tape was a device with numerous thick wires running from it, reminding me of high school science project. It was indeed a lot smaller, and it was a Carmack science project, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't skeptical about what I was about to see. Carmack and I talked a bit about VR and what I was about to experience. "One thing that people will try to do if they are experimenting with the experience is they will get up to a corner and they'll try to actually lean over the corner and that just doesn't work because [the unit] doesn't have a position tracker," he said. "If you bend at the waist or lean your head forward, the orientation will be accurate, but the position will be an approximation."

The prototype unit was held together with duct tape and hot glue.

He said that in the near future, he expects that people will be able to look around corners or reach down and touch the floor, but the technology as it stands now is worth getting out to developers right now because "it crosses the threshold of useful coolness" that its important for developers to be playing around with. With that, he picked up the device and placed it on my head. It felt like a snorkel mask, with that slight pinch around the nose, but any feelings of discomfort quickly dissolved as I realized I was inside Doom 3 BFG. I could turn my head and see the walls, ceiling and floor. I could even look behind. I did notice a slight bit of lag, but nothing to the extent that dampened the experience. What did make me nervous was that the demo was set up to use an Xbox controller, and I suck at the dual sticks and all the extra buttons. I am a keyboard and mouse guy, but I soon found that I was actually more functional with a controller than I ever had been because of the headset. The inherent nature of the game pad makes the dual sticks a bit less accurate when aiming and moving, but the headset allowed me to refine those movements with almost mouse-like accuracy just by slightly turning my head to look at what I wanted to attack. The targeting reticule had been replaced by a laser sight, making the head motions for lining up a shot a needed refinement for my clumsiness with a controller. Carmack actually made the experience a bit easier as he held all the various cables coming out of the unit to keep me from getting tangled as I bobbed and weaved trying to dodge fireballs ("I'm an expensive coat hanger," he joked). He said Luckey is working on using some very lightweight HDMI cables to lighten the headset a bit. Carmack also said he has toyed with the idea of adding some small speakers to the headset to play up positional sound to increase the level of immersion.

The finished Oculus Rift VR goggles should be much more visually appealing than the prototype.

Carmack said that programming for VR is only a slight step up from programming in 3D, which he had already done for Doom 3 BFG, so adding a VR component to the a game is not that much extra work. He told The Verge that, already having programmed Doom 3 for VR, it would be a logical step to do the same for Doom 4. He said people who have experienced the headset have already said how cool it is in Doom 3, so it would be something he could easily justify working on and adding to Doom 4 since it is id's next huge release. One thing that both Luckey and Carmack cautioned later on in the day at their Virtual Insanity panel (see video below) is that the Kickstarter project is really for developers. "It would be great if the all of the 5,000 people who donated were developers, but I suspect that the number is really more in the high hundreds to low thousands," Luckey said. People can pay $300 for a set of the VR goggles, but there is only support for one game right now. "Either people are confused about what it is--I hope not because we tried to be really clear--or they just wanted to experience what developers are making early," he added. Carmack agreed, saying that there will probably be a better time for gamers to jump into VR down the road, but now is really not that time. There are definitely some bugs to iron out, such as latency and better positional sensors, but Carmack said that we are only a few years away from making an even better, more immersive gaming experience. I know its a level of coolness I'm looking forward to.