Yesterday, I stepped into the world of The Hobbit. I stood in Smaug the Dragon’s cavernous lair. I cowered as the gigantic beast towered over me. The chance to go face-to-face with one of the most impressive CG creatures ever created, rendered using the most advanced graphics card in the world, is a pretty incredible experience.
But make no mistake, “Thief in the Shadows” is also a promo. An incredible one, but a promo. Weta Digital, the firm responsible for creating The Hobbit’s fearsome dragon, teamed up with Oculus, Nvidia, and Epic Games to create the content, and it’s just the latest and greatest in a series of brand-bought virtual reality ads.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth experiencing — it is. Really, I wish I could show you right now. But it’s nowhere near what virtual reality is capable of. You just stand there as Smaug does his thing. He emerges from his giant treasure hoard, large as life and twice as ugly, and makes you jump when he knocks down a giant stone column that misses you by an inch. The Oculus Rift Crescent Bay headset lets you crouch down to look a little bit closer at the dragon’s giant treasure hoard, but that’s it. You don’t have feet or hands. You can’t creep around like Bilbo.
Meanwhile, there are VR demos here at the 2015 Game Developers Conference that are the real deal. We’re seeing that virtual reality doesn’t have to be static — it can be interactive.
With Sony’s Project Morpheus and a pair of PlayStation Move controllers, I can root through a desk, pick up objects, load and fire a gun with my own two hands. With Valve’s VR headset, the HTC Vive, I can repair robots and cook in a virtual kitchen. These things are possible because Sony and Valve have controllers that can act as your hands. That’s something Oculus is still struggling to figure out.
Picture: Omega Agent, by Fireproof Games
Oculus does have some decent interactive experiences of its own. Shortly after Smaug burnt me to a crisp, I donned a Samsung Gear VR headset (powered by Oculus), grabbed a Bluetooth gamepad, and fired up a few games. Omega Agent immediately put a huge grin on my face. It gives you a jetpack, a city to explore, and the unmistakable feeling that you are Iron Man.
More importantly, you have hands. You can’t take them off the jetpack’s controls, but why would you want to do that?
Anshar Wars, a space shooter, is pretty damn fun too. Just turn your head to turn your starfighter, dodging asteroids with a Han Solo level of daring and precision as you blast foes out of the air. That one doesn’t even require a controller — though the user experience does benefit from a nice swivelling chair.
I still maintain that the average person will buy their first VR headset for the movies, not the games. And to share moments of their lives (on YouTube) that friends and relatives don’t just watch, but experience as if they were there. What they won’t be buying VR for are static experiences like “Thief in the Shadows.” It makes me wonder if Oculus — without its own virtual reality controllers to let you walk and reach and grab — truly has what it takes to lead the charge into the future.