Exploring Virtual Reality in Doom 3 BFG

John Carmack has been talking about virtual reality a lot lately. He demoed a VR prototype at E3, and showed it again at QuakeCon after such a positive response. I got to strap on the goggles and talk to Carmack about the future of VR in games.

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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.
Contributing Editor
From The Chatty
  • reply
    August 6, 2012 7:30 AM

    John Keefer posted a new article, Exploring Virtual Reality in Doom 3 BFG.

    John Carmack has been talking about virtual reality a lot lately. He demoed a VR prototype at E3, and showed it again at QuakeCon after such a positive response. I got to strap on the goggles and talk to Carmack about the future of VR in games.

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      August 6, 2012 8:48 AM

      What was the apparent weight of the test unit- is the hefty snowgoggle strap overkill? The Kickstarter project lists the weight of the finished oculus at 200g, which seems absurdly light.

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        August 6, 2012 9:20 AM

        It was pretty lightweight. I was more concerned about all the wires and strangling myself, but Carmack held them.

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      August 6, 2012 8:55 AM

      Nice article John good stuff, thanks. So how was that 1280x800 rez(combined two eyes) compared to say gaming on a 1920x1080 screen PC gaming? Can you tell that you saw less/lower rez in game how was it?

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        August 6, 2012 9:23 AM

        There is really a wow factor once you put them on, the rez was a little noticeable (as was a little latency), but these were so far above anything I had ever experience in VR that I was willing to overlook it. There are a lot of refinements to come in the next year or so, but that is why they want the dev kit out there to get the collective hive mind working on it together.

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          August 6, 2012 10:51 AM

          Well its the first of its kind at this lvl so it can not be perfect out of the gate. I still remember playing Duke with the Cobra head set made me barf from motion sickness, would of loved tot try this.

          Awesome :) good stuff man once they make version 2 or 3 I think it will be insane and a whole another lvl of gaming to take part in, I am ready.

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      August 6, 2012 9:08 AM

      so overall, im just looking for overall yes or no? sounds like a yes

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        August 6, 2012 9:15 AM

        I'd suggest "Yes, but wait for the consumer version". Though as I recall you're an indie dev, so for you it might make sense in that light.

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          August 6, 2012 9:17 AM

          If you watch the Quakecon panel with these guys, they really want this more for devs than end users:
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8gaqQdyfAz8

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            August 6, 2012 9:25 AM

            Totally. They make it clear that consumers chipping in on the Kickstarter really will have nothing to play except Doom 3 BFG for quite awhile. They want this in developer hands to get them thinking about VR and working on solutions for resolution, proximity motion and latency.

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              August 6, 2012 10:33 AM

              yea it sounds like even if you are a game developer, this isn't quite ready for you yet. still in the hardware and firmware stages.

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        August 6, 2012 9:54 AM

        Like Carmack said on his Keynote, "if you're wondering whether this is for you, then it's not"

        It's a developer test device. This is the start of good things, but there's much left to be done. If people come expecting full on, high res, no lag VR they're gonna be disappointed.

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      August 6, 2012 9:23 AM

      I love this idea, but if it's just for consoles then meh.

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        August 6, 2012 9:25 AM

        Of course it's not just for consoles. It's not for consoles at all right now.

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        August 6, 2012 9:26 AM

        No, this is for PC. The controller is an Xbox controller, but Carmack said you can use a mouse and keyboard, but you would be doing it blind. The controller allows for a familiar tactile experience

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        August 6, 2012 9:46 AM

        It's like affirmative action all over again.

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      August 6, 2012 10:45 AM

      Is the image in the visor in 3D?

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      August 6, 2012 11:38 AM

      Dactyle Nightmare was wonderful when i played it oh so long ago. I remember feeling very immersed despite the basic graphics. It was a lot of fun. The helmet was way to heavy at the time and you always wanted to look down.

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      August 6, 2012 11:50 AM

      There was a demo in the Vendor area at Quakecon. We didn't get the strapped on headset we had to hold the demo device up to our faces but it was really impressive all the same. Definitely made me want to buy one.

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      August 6, 2012 12:01 PM

      Ready Player One? Please strap on your haptic gloves.

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      August 6, 2012 12:43 PM

      wait, i thought Carmack came out and said he had nothing to do with this VR thing and that he simply endorsed it, nothing more.

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        August 6, 2012 1:02 PM

        Yes, he is not part of the Kickstarter project. It is run by Luckey and his company. But Carmack is endorsing it for the reasons above: It is the best attempt to date for virtual reality and Carmack programmed Doom 3 BFG to work with it.

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        August 6, 2012 3:11 PM

        It's a little more complicated than that, I'm not sure if Luckey's design originally used the hillcrest gyro, and it definitely didn't have the 250mhz firmware until Carmack requested it when he was building the demo. Also, I'd be surprised if he didn't have some say in the development of the SDK, or even contributes code.

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          August 7, 2012 1:19 AM

          Also hooking up with Epic and Valve sure gets easier with JC behind your project.

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      August 6, 2012 1:18 PM

      I need to use this with Ocarina of Time... now

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        August 6, 2012 3:14 PM

        Holy shit, you are a genius, sir! I'd play any 3D Zelda game with this.

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        August 7, 2012 5:16 AM

        That would be perfect. I'd love to try Wind Waker too!

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      August 6, 2012 4:12 PM

      Just think someday in the future motion controls wont suck and this will really work, let the waiting begin.

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      August 6, 2012 7:10 PM

      More like the BFD edition, amirite?

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      August 7, 2012 1:06 AM

      Carmack delivers a cogent narrative of his experiences up to this demo during his QuakeCon keynote. It's long, but well worth checking out (as always).

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