Black box casing. Grey tape generously slapped around the seams. Stretchy goggle bands repurposed from someone's deep-sea diving kit. The contraption screams Blue Peter grade. But two particular aspects conflict with this initial opinion. One is the thick cables that spill out the front of the VR helmet and disappear into a PC that looks like it could convincingly run NASA's Houston Space Centre. The second is the person whose hand is holding the makeshift visor out to me.
41-year old John Carmack, creator of Doom, Quake, games industry legend and aerospace engineer doesn't smile that usual smile, the one of a man trying to reassure press into overcoming their scepticism. Instead it's a smile of a design veteran who knows the technology will work. And despite entering his fortieth year, It's easy to see that smile is tinged with a boyish enthusiasm and excitement.
This is what Carmack does with his spare time now: creating beyond-the-curve technology with the nonchalance of someone changing a plug.
We're sitting in a booth behind the executive section of Bethesda's stand on the E3 show floor. The previous ten minutes of conversation - before the contraption is pulled over my head - is complete contrast to the hard sells by corporate suits on conference stages only the day previous. Twenty-four hours ago it was carefully synced auto-cues, talk of interlinking of devices, motion tech improving gaming, the joy of joint experiences. Slick, but lacking in passion.
John's different. Loose slacks, light-coloured jumper. You can't picture him wearing a tie. He talks fast but clear; opinions, ideas and tech jargon all spilling out a mile a minute. No pre-prepared speech here, yet he's as straight as an arrow with his points.
He's ripping apart the inner workings of the current industry darling motion control, yet he's not disparaging. Instead he suggests positive improvements. It's completely fascinating. Impossible as well, not to match his half smile at his casualness in how to better the latest revolution in gaming.
He's talking motion-tracking technologies. Of complete immersion in game worlds. Elaborating on a project that he's cobbled together in his spare time: a head-mounted, motion-tracking display unlike any other. One that's the product of twenty extensive years of programming skills and - amazingly - rocket technology ("I wound up using the inertial integration code for my rocket to replace what was being done on the sensors").
Working with external collaborator Palmer Lucky in its creation and putting in a few personal requests ("I got the sensor company, Hillcrest Labs, to burn me a custom firmware that upped the update rate in the software") we come to this: a frankenstein black box lavishly bolstered with gaffer tape and other bits, but offering complete transportation to another world.
Consciously or not, Carmack's also talking about, and to, the solo gamer. For this is what he's handing over. Complete integration with a virtual space. Just you, a devastated mars base, and a complex full of hellspawn.
"Doom 3 was this opportunity to turn the stuff I was tinkering with for fun and make it relevant to the company's business," he explains. "I could use this VR experience as something else that is cutting edge, that is worth people coming and looking at an eight year-old game and say some nice things about it."
The visor's hooked up to a short demo of the DOOM BFG Edition. "Doom 3's going to be the only software that natively supports this," he continues. He had a "better" version of the head mount that he was unable to bring along to the show - five others are sitting back in his office in different stages of construction.
We, apparently, are making do with second best. "The resolution's not very high - a 1280 x 800 panel back here that has each eye looking at half of it," the developer points out. "Each eye only has 640 x 800, and it's stretched over a huge area."
As we're about to find out, that's more than enough to convince us we're in the middle of hell.
Watch the GRTV Special below for the full Carmack interview and post-demo discussion on the technology, and read on for our first-hand experiences using the visor.
Under the Visor
When someone hands you a tech kit worth several thousand pounds that's held together with as much belief as actual tape, you grip firmly but delicately. Bulls and China shops suddenly comes to mind.
Slipping it over my head it feels surprisingly solid, the stretched head strap baring the weight fine. The unit feels comfortable, snug even. As a wireless headset's dropped over the ears though, any external observations are gone as your sight enters a whole other world. Every part of my vision is staring at the cold metallic walls of a Mars research facility. The illusion is complete.
I feel a joypad nudged into my hand. I'm too busy absorbed in the simple act of looking round to register it for a second.
Inside the blackness of the visor are two screens, one for each eye. Most visors in the past, the size of tank heads, Carmack's explained, could only offer 40 degree movement. You're effectively playing in tunnel vision. This though? "It offers a 90 degree horizontal field of view, 110 degrees vertical. Cuts you off completely from the world."
Warned of the disorientation beforehand ("it does not track position. So if you sway your body side to side, it does not pick that up and the world won't respond - that's a good way to make yourself feel a little sick"), I steady my legs with the intent of moving as little of my body as possible. Instead I pan my head around. With no noticeable lag and only the background noises of the research facility murmuring in my ears, the experience sends a shiver down my spine. I can feel my eyes widen to absorb everything, my heart-rate pick ups involuntarily.
Years spoilt on HDTVs has me initially lowering my estimation of the graphical power on hand. Tarted up though it is, this is still an eight year-old game. Then I pull my head out of my ass, give myself a mental shake and just appreciate what's happening. Your chosen weapon takes up a chunk of the middle screen, and a comment Carmack makes beforehand proves true: you lower it when not engaged in combat.
Then two things happen: an Imp spawns to my right, and I swing my whole body - shoulders following head, knees partially bending to carry the weight shift - towards it as I snap the gun up and start to fire. Post-game I'm told some other players never used the right stick on the pad at all. It's too ingrained for me, so I juggle both standard camera control and my head movements for precision shots.
Also post-game I'm told my antics made for entertaining viewing to observers in the room: certainly when I finish there's a lot more bodies in the room than before. Dignity may have went out the window, but under that visor I couldn't have cared less: I was fully immersed in the fiction, fighting for my life.
Unconscious movements come hands-in-hand with the experience. I lean to the side as I bank my character away from fireballs, winced as they hit. Ducked as Lost Souls screamed overhead. Whirled as I heard demons warp in behind me (and almost tore the visor's wiring from the PC as a result), gurned as I imitated the roar of the mini-gun. And - to my eternal shame - started swinging my shoulders and elbows in parallel to my fist-fight with an Imp.
When I got a tap on my shoulder signalling the end of the session, it took my brain a second to process it, time to disengage from the fictitious consciousness. It's a hell of a rush. I had the same feeling I did when I saw Mario go 3D, tried analog control, returned my first ball in tennis with the Wii Remote. Watched Avatar for the first time. It was that much of a leap.
The Next Step
Carmack tells me that people have tripped over chairs in the room, become disorientated, some edging towards illness. Not because the effect is so awful, but because for all intents and purposes - the corridors of the Mars base are now your reality. It's something I'm incredibly eager to try again.
Currently it's extremely cool demo tech, currently only in the hands of enthusiasts with money to sink solely into the project. Looking to the future though? It feels like this is could be the standard for gaming come the next decade. But there's a long road to there.
"This is intended to be available at around five hundred dollars for a kit," John says. "It's not a consumer device. But for the hacker crowd, this is going to be amazingly cool."
While Carmack is off the project now ("back onto the big projects that'll take a while longer", he laughs), the plan in the short term is to take advantage of Kickstarter, with Carmack's collaborator Palmer "initially looking at a hundred units - I suspect he's going to have a lot more demand than that", and see what comes out of other peoples' tinkering.
As for a long term future though, John's confident the project will make it to the consumer market.
"It is compelling enough that I think one of the majors will step in and they'll want to productise it, do the whole software ecosystem, have broad support and all the things that are necessary to make it something that consumers would be happy with."
Our John Carmack interview - covering the current state of motion control in the industry, what keeps him interested in technology as well as how he's still learning below.
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