Like most video game obsessed kid’s in the 80′s I dreamt of one day being ‘in the game’. Around the time the Sinclair computers were knocking about the movie Tron came out and gave a jump start to a generations VR dreams. Back then it seemed impossible. Playing about on Sinclair basic the most you could hope for was to have a 8 x 8 pixel single character or simple shape jerking around the screen. Learning Z80 assembly language helped but even then it was still really limited to small sprites (which you had to code first as there were no hardware sprites).
Back then I remember the talk was of how big sprites would get or how smooth scrolling could be. VR was strictly science fiction.
Forward wind to 2014 and technology has caught up to a point where the ‘in the game’ VR experience is possible. There are still problems and it’s early days. The Oculus Rift really needs a screen with three or four times the current resolutions to start to give a really nice image and it’s going to be a while before they are cheap enough for a consumer unit. Motion sickness is another problem.
When I decided to add Oculus support to Starters Orders 6 I was not hopeful. For a start I knew the text heavy menu’s that players spend most of their time on simply would not work. I also wasn’t sure on how the visuals and game models would stand up. When you glance left for example the horse and jockey will fill your entire view. Not just a rectangle a couple of feet in front of your face. Also in order to accommodate many racecourses the game racecourses (in SO6) need to be able to be constructed via an editor rather than a 3D artist put the whole scene together and light it nicely (it would look better that way but the flexibility and number of courses would be lost AND it would be too expensive). I thought it may well look crap.
Luckily the way the unit (at least the DK1 anyhow) works makes it suitable for SO6 because it can be easily turned on and off while still being registered as active on the PC and it can be re-initialised at the start of every race. So you can play in the normal way on your monitor and when it comes to the race you can watch the usual 3D race on your monitor. If you are riding however you hit the on button on your Rift and put the headset on and the game will switch to a stereo 3D view. So Stereo mode will be activated if you have a Rift plugged in and you are riding in jockey mode.
What I didn’t realise is how well this would work. Because you are only wearing the headset for a short time during the race sickness is not a problem. It’s cool to just suddenly be in the starting stalls and even with the low-fi DK1 Oculus Rift the race is fun. The ability to look around by moving your head is a real plus and makes the whole expieirence feel more natural. Also because you are sitting on a horse you kind of have a frame of reference. Your brain knows in effect you have no relative movement to the object your are sat on (the horse). Your legs are not moving and that is consistent with the virtual world. So the experience is not broken in the same way as playing for example a FPS game. Cockpit game work best on the rift because of this.
The meters and indicators on the race screen (in jockey mode) were a problem. They just didn’t look right so I got rid of them. It was a revelation that I found riding a race much more exciting this way. After all a jockey does not have a HUD with the horses preferred tactics, level of reserves and pace etc. It means you have to know and research the horse before riding and getting a winner is much more rewarding (and that is how the game should be played anyway). So the Rift mode will have no indicators at all except for the JUMP indicator. I am also going to have an option to get rid of this too. Races are genuinely better with absolutely no help on screen at all. Maybe not so newbie friendly though.
Frantic tapping of the Action1 (or L-CTRL) for whipping in a tight finish at a big meeting with the crowd noise coming through the headphones and a big stand looming over your left shoulder is I expect the closest most of us have ever been to riding a race. Another step up will come with decent motion controllers for the reins and whip and I have something in mind for this but not right now. I realise VR is not everyone’s bag and to be honest I’m not convinced it’s going to boost sales much but I do this because I like it rather than for the money and right now it’s fun and interesting (I’m no business man). I also have a vague plan to enhance the whole experience with an interesting piece of hardware but that is strictly top secret right now. All I can say if it works it will make for some amusing YouTube videos!
So it turns out the Jockey mode is very well suited to VR headsets. I expect to add experimental support within a few weeks.
Having said all this I do not recommend anyone buying one until a consumer unit is out and no one currently knows when this will be. It had been thought the end of 2014 may see a consumer version but the year is rapidly running out and no news yet. If you have access to a Rift dev kit or can get to one of the shows we are displaying at it’s worth trying out though (we may be able to get to some racecourses next year). If you want one of these you will need a fairly high spec gaming rig with a decent dedicated video card and the whole setup is not cheap. Clearly in two or three years when average gaming specs have stepped up a little, the prices come down and higher resolution screens are in the devices this will be much more of a proposition but even right now it’s something to behold.