NASA using Oculus Rift with Xbox One’s Kinect to control robots

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab team is testing a combination of the Xbox One Kinect sensor and the Oculus Rift headset to control robots:

Using the new Xbox One Kinect sensor, we are able to manipulate the JACO robot arm in real time. By combining position tracking from the Kinect and rotational tracking with the Oculus, we provide a first-person view for the operator. Future work will include integrating sensor array data into the scene and translating our research to the Robonaut 2 humanoid on the International Space Station.

From the research side of things, this is a great proof-of-concept to show another application of consumer technology in a research environment. This sort of thing could be applied anywhere humans shouldn’t be going but autonomous or controller-operated robots aren’t quite nimble enough to work. It could also decrease the need extra-vehicular activities during space missions or even future landings on the Moon and Mars.



John Carmack resigns from id Software

Co-founder of Doom developer severs ties in order to focus full-time on Oculus VR CTO position.

John Carmack

When John Carmack signed on to be the full-time chief technology officer at upstart Oculus VR, id Software parent Bethesda Softworks was quick to say the developer’s work at the Doom development studio would be unaffected. That might have been the plan, but in practice it hasn’t turned out that way. In a statement to GamesIndustry International, id studio director Tim Willits confirmed that Carmack has left the company entirely.

“John Carmack, who has become interested in focusing on things other than game development at id, has resigned from the studio,” Willits said. “John’s work on id Tech 5 and the technology for the current development work at id is complete, and his departure will not affect any current projects. We are fortunate to have a brilliant group of programmers at id who worked with John and will carry on id’s tradition of making great games with cutting-edge technology. As colleagues of John for many years, we wish him well.”

Carmack offered his own comment through Twitter, saying, “I wanted to remain a technical adviser for Id, but it just didn’t work out. Probably for the best, as the divided focus was challenging.”

Carmack was an original co-founder at id Software, working there since its inception in 1991. He is the last of the original core of founders–which also included Tom Hall, John Romero, and Adrian Carmack–to leave the company. Earlier this year, the company also lost studio president Todd Hollenshead, who had been part of the company since 1996 and served as its CEO until its 2009 acquisition by Bethesda.

Oculus wasn’t Carmack’s only non-id responsibility. The developer also founded the Texas-based rocketry firm Armadillo Aerospace, but inquiries as to his current status with the company have not been returned as of press time.



Oculus working on 4K Rift headset

Even though the Rift isn’t out yet, 4K is coming.

Oculus 4K Rift headset

At the Gaming Insiders Summit in San Francisco yesterday, Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe said that adding 4K resolution displays to the Oculus Rift is on the company’s radar. According to a report by Polygon, Iribe offered no other information.

Oculus Rift creator Palmer Luckey told PCGamer earlier this year that the company expected to double the resolution of the Rift displays within a year.

“I do think resolution needs to be better for the best VR, but even at low resolution you can get a good experience,” said Luckey. “I’m not going to say that this is the best experience, or that resolution isn’t important; it’s a really critical factor and this is good as it gets today. We’re going to be building one at double this resolution within a year and even more after that, so there’s a lot of other things to work on besides resolution. We can’t just sit around and wait for 4K displays to hop around.”

At the Summit, Iribe also mentioned that the company has worked on new prototypes that eliminate the motion sickness that plagues some users.

“I’ve gotten sick every time I’ve tried it. Every time until recently,” he said, according to Polygon. “In the last few weeks, I stayed in it for 45 minute sessions and I did not get sick with the new prototype. We are at the edge of bringing you no motion sickness content. We are figuring out things like simulator sickness.”



Steam Box, Oculus Rift will define next-gen, says Cliffy B

Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski doesn’t see much disruption or innovation coming from consoles and AAA titles.

The new consoles from Sony and Microsoft are now only a little over a month away. While much of the industry is gearing up for the arrival of these next-gen systems, there are plenty who are less enthusiastic about what the platforms mean for next-gen gaming. You can count former Epic Games design director Cliff Bleszinski in that camp.

When asked by the [a]list daily what he thinks will define the next-gen era of games, Bleszinski gave an answer that was decidedly in a direction away from consoles. “Things like the Steam Box and the Oculus Rift, honestly. I’m friends with a lot of folks in Microsoft. Microsoft has been very good to me throughout my career. I’m friends with the folks at Sony. But when I think about my gamer instincts and where I’m going to see a lot of the most disruptive and innovative gaming I don’t see it in the $250 million budgeted game that cost $100 million to market. Because when you have that high of a budget the amount of risk being taken decreases exponentially,” he said.

“I was more excited about playing games like Gone Home than any console release. I am thoroughly excited to dive into Grand Theft Auto V, but it’s sitting on my desk looking like War and Peace to me right now. I’m going to have to clear out a good two weeks of doing nothing in order to just deep dive into it. In the meantime I’m on my Nintendo DS and I’m on my laptop playing Steam games. I got to fire up Two Brothers and I finished Thomas Was Alone and Gone Home. I don’t know if it’s because I’m rubber banding and rebelling against my AAA background, but I will buy a Playstation 4 and an Xbox One. Am I more excited for that than the Rift and Steam? I think Sony and Microsoft are going to do just fine and it’s a known entity. A known entity is not that exciting to me. It’s the disruptive things that are exciting to me.”

Bleszinski is confident that Oculus Rift can become a solid platform, but it needs games designed specifically for its VR interface and not just some console ports. “They know what they’re doing over there (at Oculus) and I think Rift could eventually be its own platform. Putting Team Fortress 2 and Half Life on it is a mistake. The experiences that are going to be the best ones are the ones that are custom made for the pacing of that kind of experience. I got more excited by the trailer for EVE Valkyrie on the Rift than anything I saw at E3 this year,” he commented.



Can the Virtual Reality dream go mainstream?

As Sony jumps on the Oculus bandwagon, is the dream of mass-market VR about to come true?

VR gaming reality

In a sense, a whole generation has already grown up with virtual reality. The technology was a staple of science fiction films of the 1980s and 1990s, from the neon dreamscapes of Tron via the squishy organic ickiness of Cronenberg’s eXistenZ to the slick totalitarian nightmare of The Matrix. Even in films where it wasn’t a core story element, VR headsets or virtual worlds were movie shorthand for “hey, we’re in the future”.

Hey – we’re in the future. It’s now clear that Sony is working seriously on a VR headset for PlayStation 4, which will compete with the Kickstarter sensation that is Oculus Rift – the HD version of which has been wowing almost everyone who tries it out. After countless abortive attempts at VR tech, laid low by poor framerates, awful resolution, glitchy head tracking and, in many cases, the sheer discomfort of wearing the heavy headsets themselves, the message from both Oculus and Sony seems to be “this time it actually works” – a message borne out from personal brief experience, and more usefully from acres of positive coverage of more long-term testing.

In the midst of the warranted enthusiasm about these strides forward in a technology many of us have dreamed about since childhood, there’s a question nobody seems particularly keen to ask. Is this a mainstream technology, or simply a sideshow for a dedicated band of early adopters? VR unquestionably has applications in a host of serious fields – medical treatment, military training, search and rescue and many others – but does it have a future as a well-supported entertainment device? Can anyone really picture a time when a couple of VR headsets snuggle on charging cradles below the living room TV?

“Is this a mainstream technology, or simply a sideshow for a dedicated band of early adopters?”

We don’t want to ask those questions, I suspect because we fear that we already know what the answers are. A world that has heavily adopted VR in the home genuinely is quite hard to envisage. The technology is, by its nature, antisocial – as long as you assume that “social” is confined to real rather than virtual environments, of course. It’s designed from first principles to exclude the world around you in favour of a constructed virtual world. Where something like Google Glass augments reality (and plenty of people find that creepy enough in itself), Oculus Rift and its ilk replace reality outright. That’s an intriguing prospect but one which seems, at least to most people, like one with a very limited set of usage scenarios.

After all, think about how the “dream” of VR was presented in all of those movies of the 80s and 90s. We may have watched them as children and thought about how cool it would be to step into a virtual environment – but even if you leave aside the scary hand-waving “dangers of the virtual world” storylines (seriously, if you’ve written the line “if we die in the game, we die in reality!” in a story or script, go out, get some fresh air, and consider a career change), the depiction of VR was never all that positive. Science fiction is generally a moral tale about today dressed in the speculative clothing of tomorrow – within those parables, VR mostly served as a warning about how isolated and confined technology could make us. VR users were at best, drooling vegetables whose minds were engaged far away from the people around them; at worst, withered tube-fed husks who didn’t even know the real world existed.

“I’m not convinced that VR has a place as a mainstream entertainment device – it’s simply a step too far in disconnection from your surroundings”

These depictions were contemporary comment more than anything else – a statement about fears that we were becoming more and more absorbed in technology and media to the exclusion of the real world and those around us. VR was the ultimate expression of that fear – a technology which would entirely replace the real world. To those of us who view games as escapist fantasy, that’s beguiling, but it’s easy to see how such complete escapism can be no different to isolation or disconnection. For exactly the same reason that film makers of previous decades used VR to express their fears about technology, I’m not convinced that VR has a place as a mainstream entertainment device – it’s simply a step too far in disconnection from your surroundings. It will undoubtedly find a great niche market among a specific class of core gamer (and I’ll be happy to be among them), but ultimately, it is a class of device that belongs in the den or the bedroom, not the living room, and it will concern and disturb enough people to keep it locked out of many homes for years to come.

There is a counter-argument to this, if I may be permitted to play my own Devil’s Advocate – smartphones. If you had made a film in the 1980s in which everyone on a train carriage stared and tapped on panes of glass, unspeaking, for the duration of their journeys, or in which a family sat around a television engaging with the black slabs in their hands rather than in conversation with one another, it would have looked like a dystopian nightmare. “Nobody will ever permit that to happen to society,” you might have thought – yet here we are, a nation of people who decry those who can’t stop checking their phones while out for a dinner date, yet secretly can’t wait for our date to take a bathroom break so we can reach into our pockets.

It’s not a dystopian nightmare, unless you’re a utterly miserable luddite – the kind of person who sniffs at smartphones and honks out “well mine makes phonecalls just fine!”, as if a completely bone-headed misunderstanding of technological progress makes you into the smartest guy in the room and not just an earth-shattering bore. It’s just a bit socially annoying. We got used to this new reality in small steps – it’s the new normal. Who is to say, then, that VR headsets won’t also become the New Normal?

“We got used to this new reality in small steps – it’s the new normal. Who is to say, then, that VR headsets won’t also become the New Normal?”

In the very long term, I think that reasoning is probably sound. I buy it with regards to Google Glass style HUD systems, a product I don’t like very much right now but which I fully expect will become normal for us all within the coming decade, just as smartphones did this decade. As VR headsets become smaller, lighter and less intrusive – ultimately, a few decades down the line, probably being built into contact lenses or something of that sort – they will indeed become the new normal, at least for some people. In the medium term, though, VR seems destined to be an exciting niche, at best. I personally can’t wait to see what kind of experiences we can have on future versions of Oculus Rift and Sony’s headset, but I have no expectation that this will break out of the core gamer market (a few tens of millions of consumers, which is admittedly not to be sniffed at) for years to come.

One of the most sensible rules that anyone talking about the future – be it serious speculation or pure science fiction – ought to follow is “never say never”; the best way to look like a fool down the line is to proclaim anything to be impossible. With regard to mainstream adoption of VR, then, I’m certainly not prepared to say “never” – but with a slightly heavy heart, I’m definitely prepared to say “not yet”.