Gamescom 2015 has just started, a time when a sizeable portion of the European gaming community flocks to Cologne, Germany for a chance to get a glimpse at the newest that the videogame industry has to offer—which in our case means the latest virtual reality games and gear—and more specifically to me, getting to see the Oculus Touch controllers for the first time.
You’re not supposed to focus too much on the people that facilitate these sorts of demos. They open the doors, answer the questions they can, and try to stay out of the way so you can experience whatever it is you came in to do. But Toybox, a sort of polished up internal test platform for Oculus’ recently announced Touch motion controllers, was different. Very different.
Mustafa, an ex-Dreamworks guy turned Oculus believer, stood across from me in the virtual space. Between us, a wrap-around waist-high table with everything a curious five year-old would love to play with: brightly colored stacking blocks, toy cars, robots, breakable over-sized lawn gnomes, ping pong paddles and a handful of bouncy balls.
“Try and stack the blocks. Let’s have a competition.” I wagged my index finger incredulously, letting it off the trigger and watching the index finger of my virtual hand stick straight out. “You’ll probably win, dude. You work here,” I returned with my own special brand of self deprecation. His virtual head and two hands glowed an iridescent blue, floating in space not connect to a virtual body; Aand yet still I could swear he shrugged, laughing it off good-naturedly.
I stacked the blocks. I smashed the cars. I broke an orb that transported us to a world with underwater physics, one that turned off gravity, shooting ranges where I shot dual laser pistols at jolly ceramic gnomes. We took turns shrinking each other to the size of GI Joes with a shrink ray. I laughed and played and forgot all about the reserved journalistic integrity I told myself I had to maintain, of course following the words of the late great Terence McKenna who once said about tripping on DMT “Don’t give into astonishment.” It’s a motto I take with me into VR, just so I can take in anything and everything about the experience.
But it was too late. I had already reverted back to a child, tossing around beach volley balls and catching them before they hit my head (which would have just bounced off) and absent mindedly catching a block as it fell from my precarious stack.
There’s a good reason why it all seems to work so well. Toybox and Touch grew up together, so to speak.
“The thing about Toybox is it wasn’t designed as a demo, it wasn’t… designed to be the most fun or even necessarily the most representative of the capabilities of touch. It’s actually an internal test bed,” Palmer Luckey told me, Founder of Oculus. “We’ve been using Toybox for a really long time in various forms to basically design Oculus Touch, to experiment with different types of interactions, whether that’s flicking things or poking things or punching things or throwing things…”
And all of this madness in the Toybox (including some roman candles and a flickable Zippo lighter) took place while standing in a completely separate physical space as Mustafa. In the virtual world I watched him interact with the toys on the same table as the one before me and had an easy conversation about how I suck at ping pong in real life too. But in the real world it was me alone in a room wearing a VR headset, holding some futuristic-looking controllers. Though just in the next room, Mustafa could have easily been across the country and it would have made no difference to how natural it felt interacting with him in this space.
The Touch controllers are good. “Convincingly, incredibly good,” as I put it walking out of Oculus’ demo space responding to (warning: name drop ahead) CEO Brendan Iribe and Palmer Luckey who just happened to be strolling by. Not only was I surprised at the ease of use, which had practically zero learning curve, but the level of interaction that it facilitated is, in my mind, monumental for social VR. I knew Mustafa through that virtual social fabric. I knew when my dour jokes didn’t land well and he was forcing a laugh to keep the energy going. I knew that he was better than me at sports, and had better aim with plasma pistols.
And all of this was done with my new Oculus bud transmitting from another room entirely—a bold illustration of what can be possible with integrated VOIP and a very clever pair of motion tracked hand controllers.
Check back for more reviews, previews, and hands-on with the newest VR games and gear from Gamescom 2015.