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Meeting Totoro with the Oculus Rift

In which a virtual reality headset allows me to fulfil my childhood dream of waiting at the bus stop with Totoro.

The Oculus Rift is a nifty piece of kit. A virtual reality headset that immerses you one step further into the gaming world, it’s the kind of thing they made cartoon episodes about in the 90’s.

Last week I got to try my hand at gaming through the Oculus Rift. And let me tell you, it was better than I ever expected. We were using the DK2 (Development Kit 2), which is the most recent version available.

I was particularly keen to try a demo in which you wait at the bus stop with Totoro – based on the famous scene from Studio Ghibli’s 1988 movie. So, after downloading and setting it up, I put on the headset and entered that familiar scene. It was immersion from the start – the rain seemed to echo from everywhere, and while I controlled my movements with a conventional controller, all camera movements are controlled by a turn of the head. And it felt amazing to be standing there at the bus stop, and slowly turn my head upward to see the friendly forest giant Totoro standing next to me.

The scene plays out without too much input from you – it relies only on you reaching the stop and performing basic actions like giving Totoro the umbrella. Everything else is just a matter of waiting. It’s something I was initially a bit dubious about, but after a short while I found it increased the feeling of immersion. I was actually sad when Catbus arrived and Totoro had to leave.

See you later, Totoro. Image © Nick Pittom of Fire Panda LTD
See you later, Totoro. Image © Nick Pittom of Fire Panda LTD

The Totoro demo was released by Nick Pittom back in June of this year. You can download it for free from his website. It’s not the first Ghibli-themed demo he’s created – there’s an earlier one based on Spirited Away that I haven’t had the chance to try yet.

After the bundle of cuteness that was Totoro, I lay back for an even less taxing experience, albeit a bit of a mind-gasm. SightLine’s The Chair, a demo based on gaze-direction mechanics. It has you sitting in a chair throughout, and every time you turn your head to look around, something in the environment changes. It does it so subtly that you don’t ever see the change happening. And it is weird: sitting at a desk becomes sitting in a field, where grasses grow longer and longer, suddenly cubes appear out of nowhere. Things get exponentially crazier, until you’re left feeling like you’re on the set for a Terry Gilliam film. And oh man, the vertigo. Really amazing stuff.

image © Tomas "Frooxius" Mariancik
image © Tomas “Frooxius” Mariancik

You can find the demo for The Chair here.

My final experiment was a more conventional gaming demo called Windlands, a.k.a Guardians of the Wind. In this game, you are equipped with a pair of grappling hooks, and the idea is to use them to soar through a dizzying environment of, well, lots of very tall things.

Now, normally, I have no problem with these kinds of games, and wouldn’t mind losing lives over and over to find out the most expedient route between buildings or floating islands or whatever. But with the headset on, up on a high ledge I realised I was experiencing vertigo, and was sweating like crazy. After falling a couple of times I decided to stick to the lower levels until I was confident I wouldn’t do something stupid like fall off. It just felt that much more real.

Somewhat vertigo-inducing. Image © werewolfworthy.tumblr.com
Somewhat vertigo-inducing. (input for both eyes pictured) Image © werewolfworthy.tumblr.com

My companions at first thought this was amusing – until they experienced the game for themselves, and had very similar reactions. It’s well worth a try, and you can find the demo in its entirety here.

So that’s three very different experiences available with the DK2 headset. I’d recommend trying them all, just to see the potential this tech has. Currently you can only buy the development kit headsets, and although Oculus previewed their prototype, dubbed Crescent Bay, at their conference back in September, we’ll have to wait until next year for the first commercially-available model.

 

main image © Nick Pittom of Fire Panda LTD

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