Downtime at work occasionally sends me straight to Wikipedia as a way to indulge in documentary-length encyclopedia entries without subjecting myself to the ridiculous data rates that come with watching videos on your smartphone without a WiFi connection. As a result, I’ve gone through the Nintendo Virtual Boy section two or three different times, dumbfounded through every read at how Nintendo of all companies could have released a video game console to consumers that caused widespread motion sickness, and was abandoned as quickly as it was introduced to the market.
The Oculus Rift will be no different. I honestly don’t believe people are prepared for the monumental letdown that will occur once this gadget is in the hands of the people who shelled out big bucks to pre-order it.
Now, what inspired me to write this short opinion piece today is sim racing’s own EmptyBox, who was promptly called out by r/SimRacing for praising virtual reality technology without even trying the headgear himself. Reddit tore the guy apart more so than usual, quickly pointing out the fact that Matt basically didn’t say anything of value throughout the fifteen minute video aside from pure speculation, and noting he began the video by stating he’d never actually tried any virtual reality technology himself. With Matt being sim racing’s biggest and most knowledgeable YouTuber, this kind of slip-up is uncharacteristic, and a whole bunch of people noticed. However, people agreed that VR technology is the next logical step for sim racing, and the final product will blow people away because it’s tailor-made for these types of games.
I’m here to rain on everybody’s parade. Fellow Edmontonian/Sim Racer/ Spec Miata Driver/Reddit User fugudacat invited me over just as the snow was starting to melt in 2015 to test out the Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2 on iRacing. Despite the fact that the technology works exactly as advertised, and is every bit as cool as you imagine it to be, the negatives outweigh the positives by a substantially large margin. It works and provides an experience every bit as intuitive as the footage you’ve most likely seen on YouTube out of curiosity, it’s just not the all-encompassing revolution you’d expect it to be. $600 is a lot to spend on a gadget that doesn’t fully deliver.
The weight of the headset isn’t noticeable, nor is your visibility compromised. It feels like you’re wearing a Simpson helmet and the device rests on your head in a very natural way, and the black borders aren’t intrusive at all; they instead provide an unintended helmet cam effect that will invalidate the need for any first person camera plugins. Merely sitting in the pits with the car in neutral, it’s definitely neat to be able to look around and explore your surroundings as if you’re fully a part of the virtual world. Smart cookies like fugudacat will map a Reset Viewpoint button to the steering wheel, ensuring they’ll never struggle with an odd camera position after extended periods of driving and shifting around in your sim seat.
But then you start driving.
Look, the last time I was in Disneyland, my teammates and I went on the main California Adventure roller coaster something like six or seven times in a row. Back when I was big into Guitar Hero, I intentionally played with the Hyperspeed cheat activated, routinely swapping between levels 4 and 5 depending on how much I’d played that week. 3D movies have never bothered me, nor have strobe lights or driving late at night in heavy snow, a trademark of Canadian winters. The whole motion sickness or vertigo thing some people deal with – that’s a foreign concept to me.
I don’t think I ran more than three or four laps at Mosport in the Skip Barber Formula 2000 before I felt like I was going to have a seizure. Myself and Greg swapped out every couple of minutes while I warmed up to the headset, and that introduction process is something I never want to experience again with any piece of technology. Your eyes hurt, your brain hurts, and you feel you’re about two or three seconds away from your entire central nervous system shutting down. It was comparable to the feeling of the anesthesia knocking you out for anyone who’s had their wisdom teeth removed – sustained over a period of minutes.
Gradually, it gets a little better. At first, three laps were nearly impossible to stomach. The second time out, the three laps were a tad easier to complete. Then we moved to five, and I was able to look towards the apex on some corners. As Mosport is a track with massive elevation changes, you felt extremely dizzy if you tried to be too active in the cockpit. While being able to look towards upcoming segments of the track and point the car in the direction I wanted to go was indeed everything it was cracked up to be, it felt completely unnatural. As I clicked off more laps, my eyes hurt less and my brain calmed down a bit, but the reality is that some people might not ever be able to use this technology because the sensory overload will be too much for their eyes or brain to handle. You’re looking at a very real chance that some people paid $600 to purchase the first retail version, only to use it once and find out they simply can’t handle it.
So we go to Circuit of the America’s in the BMW Z4 GT3, which is both a car and track I’d become familiar with as I’d just wrapped up two back-to-back championships in a few 4Chan endurance racing leagues. Turn One at Circuit of the America’s is this massive blind left-hander over the crest of a huge hill overlooking the entire Grand Prix complex. In single monitor setups, you’re guessing at this corner each and every lap, turning in by following the racing groove and hoping you got things absolutely perfect. Being able to look out the side window and aim for the apex made the most challenging part of the circuit into a total breeze. Right then and there, I understood why sim racers were hyping this up as the next big thing. The Oculus Rift gave me a competitive advantage when I needed it the most.
But what sim racers don’t tell you, is that the overall resolution of the product lacks fidelity. Above is a simple mock-up I’ve made of what you see while the Oculus Rift is strapped to your head. Now, maybe this issue has been rectified for the first retail release, but the DK2 I tried had an overall resolution that made your eyes bleed. Everything near you was blurry, and everything on the horizon was a cluster of pixels. After the large downhill run from turn one at Circuit of the America’s, you’re led into turns three, four, and five: a high speed left-right-left section reminiscent of Silverstone. I never managed to complete this section without blowing one of the corners entirely, because I couldn’t actually see where I was going; the entire corner complex was a blur of colors and pixels. As quickly as the technology demonstrated its usefulness, my lap time was rendered invalid because of it.
Not being able to read the HUD was also kind of shitty.
To close things out, we took iRacing’s Late Model to the now non-existent USA Speedway, and due to the much more simplistic track design, the Oculus Rift again displayed why some feel this is the future of sim racing. For once, the cramped quarters of the cockpit aligned with my own experience sitting in Maple’s Late Model, and being able to look ahead in the corners out the extremely small windshield made a world of difference compared to the traditional fixed cockpit view. Whereas most people are used to preparing for the road a car length or two in front of you, the entire corner opened up and it was easier to focus on driving a smooth line. Again, this was largely in part due to the small, simplistic nature of the track. Any long, complicated road course, and you’re lucky if you can see ahead past the first braking marker. I can’t imagine anyone turning competitive times with this thing in DiRT Rally, or dealing with the extreme dizziness that is bound to creep up in drift competitions on Assetto Corsa.
Do I think the Oculus Rift will be worth the $600 it’s currently going for? No. While a stunning piece of technology in it’s own right, offering the exact sort of virtual reality experience you envision, there are just too many setbacks that make the hefty price tag hard to justify.
- Some people are simply not going to be able to handle the motion sickness it causes.
- If huge improvements aren’t made to the resolution, it’s only effective on certain tracks
- Good luck navigating through menus or reading your heads up display while in a race.
- Periodic dizziness forces you to take breaks, a hard sell when some online races last upwards of 45 minutes and require you to constantly monitor info displays you can’t read.
Realistically, the best way to copy the advantages of virtual reality without wrecking your eyes or giving yourself the worst headache imaginable is a good triple screen setup – provided you have the space of course.