Christmas in July for those who are not aware is a trade show (or shows) that allow retailers or manufacturers the opportunity to present their Christmas selections to the media far in advance of the big day.
From a single event, this has bloomed into a season with individual retailers having their own shows and on 20th July (2017) at the former Billingsgate Fish Market, Amazon took their turn.
Once inside the venue was open plan with different zones representing various parts of the Amazon organisation. Active demonstrations were everywhere whilst samples of Amazon Food were being circulated*.
Of interest to our regular readers was the gaming area found on the upper floor. A small delegation from Microsoft were taking people through the features of the forthcoming Xbox One X whilst a rolling video was demonstrating the visual enhancements of the new hardware; an example of which was on a table. I actually got to hold the new machine, well the casing for it, and it is fair to say that visually it is a black version of the Xbox One S. Thus maintaining the new smaller profile but what did strike me from a tactile point of view was the surface knurling which gave it a more rugged feel, that’s not to say it was pronounced just more apparent to the touch. Still no confirmation on the internal hard drive size but Gamescom is just around the corner and that might be the venue for final SCU details.
Literally next door to the Xbox display was the Oculus VR demonstration area. Here you could try from a selection of demos. For those that don’t know the Occulus Rift is a head mounted 3D display that is driven by a PC. In order to allow you to interact with the 3D environment they were using a pair of Touch controllers. These resemble a small moulded pistol grips inside a halo like hoops. Fitted with safety straps these hung from the wrists until required and soon became a natural extension of your hands. The pads, triggers and buttons were exactly where you’d want them and gave you far more control than that offered by a conventional controller. Although initially available separately these controllers are now part of a time limited bundle pack.
The next person to experience it was my trusty compatriot Brian (Doyle) who chose the demo where you’re inside a building with a lot of interactive items. At this point I’ll hand over to Brian;
My previous exposure to VR gaming is minimal. At Celebration Europe last year, I did try "Trials on Tattooine", the ILMxLAB's own "proof of concept" experimental VR, which required every person trying it to have their own private room and a minder. As it involved a lot of turning around and lightsabre combat I can only imagine what we looked like to the minders, but I hope it kept them amused. (I will confess that when I tried to deflect Stormtrooper blaster fire back at them, eventually I think some of the troopers just gave up and left out of boredom)
So this was my first go at proper commercially targeted VR, and I wasn't sure how it would compare.
The person ahead of me for the Oculus Rift, was REALLY getting into the Fruit Ninja-like game, to the extent that there was a deal of jumping around which was really putting the length of the flex to it's limits.
Being far more sedate, I tried the "Robo Recall" demo, which involved interacting with a cute and friendly little floating robot in a cluttered room as it provides you with a range of little toys for you "3d print" and interact with, from toy bottle rockets, to a free floating target practice range.
The illusion is incredible, at a basic level you KNEW you were still in a large open-plan display area, but the game area walls crowding in around you convince you otherwise (as does the remarkable sound design). Even not having a physical presence in the game beyond a pair of disembodied hands (which can interact with things but can't register touch), isn't enough to spoil it (When it really should). As someone who needs varifocal glasses there wasn't even a loss in focus when the depth of field changed, which surprised me more than I expected.
Of course, the effectiveness of the illusion is one reason I would probably be very limited in my playing. Since I was "in" a crowded area, I had an overwhelming urge to constantly check what was behind me, and for the Robo Recall game that was fine as all there was a blank wall with a door (Which you couldn't open). How exactly I would react to any remotely creepy or menacing game, with jump scares and worse yet, having to check behind me for shambling things, I'm honestly not sure how I'd react, but I'm not sure I could actually enjoy it.
Thanks Brian, now to my thoughts or call it a second viewpoint which seems very appropriate for a stereoscopic device…
Once I was kitted up and had the unit configured to my eyesight (just a slider) I then went through a tutorial on the way you interact inside the virtual environment. Here I must mention that unlike my previous experience of VR the Touch controllers mean that you don’t just see the tool being used but your actual hand and thanks to the gesture input you see the position of your fingers too.
Once the tutorial was over I was able to make a selection from the choice of demos. Since you were able to ‘see’ what the wearer was experiencing on a screen and the choice that Brian had made seemed to be a lot of fun I selected the same one.
I then found myself in some sort of worn out building behind a counter. The décor had a strong 80s office vibe. The sense of place was palpable and without spoiling the demo it used a device to create items to interact with; the first being a robot buddy. The 3D was convincing and the Touch controllers gave me the required tools to interact with the environment and I was genuinely disappointed when the demonstration came to an end and I had to return to the real world.
Sadly, my time at the Amazon event was limited as we were a late arrival so the coverage now draws to a close but I must give grateful thanks to Amazon for their hospitality.
*I must confess that the lemon drizzle cake was the best I’ve ever tasted and incredibly moist. The carrot cake was pretty nice also…
- Neil Kenny and Brian Doyle