Second Life and Oculus Rift: Prospects and Thoughts

Back in April, virtual world innovator Jon “Keystone” Brouchoud wrote a very interesting article on why he believes Second Life would be a killer app for a VR device named Oculus Rift that is currently in development. In essence, Oculus Rift is a headset for immersive virtual reality applications (games among them), not unlike the Virtuality from days of yore. I must say I agree with Brouchoud on most, if not all, of his points, although it does seem that Linden Lab, the developers of Second Life, have decided to not let OpenSim platforms beat them to Oculus Rift integration – Jo Yardley reports that she brought Oculus Rift founder Palmer Luckey and LL CEO Rod Humble in touch and, not long after, LL spokesman Peter Gray confirmed that LL will strongly support the device. As a matter of fact, in Jo’s post we read that LL has already got Oculus Rift working with SL and that they’re now in the process of optimising things.

Personally, I’m all for LL supporting new systems and technologies that will strengthen the immersive qualities of SL; this way, SL will not only cement its nature as a virtual reality platform, but it will hopefully become even more attractive to creators that wish to provide the public with an immersive, exciting experience. Another bonus is that SL will once again be seen and perceived as an innovative platform, perhaps resulting in the turnaround its reputation needs.

Despite certain limitations and lingering technical issues that have been well-documented by numerous technical-minded bloggers, Second Life is still the best platform for creating virtual worlds out there: in terms of community size, no other virtual world can match it. Even though its concurrency (i.e. number of users logged-in at the same time) has dropped significantly for a number of reasons that will be examined at a later date, SL still has far more users than any other virtual world, and they are pretty passionate and dedicated about it. More importantly, Second Life as a virtual world is social – it is not an empty 3D landscape with buildings and a few objects and it’s not a game with a couple of social elements thrown in. Second Life is social and that’s why it has an active, dedicated and passionate community. Add the fact that, whereas some virtual worlds have come and gone, SL has stayed the course and is still pretty profitable. Finally, unlike most other virtual worlds, it incorporated a marketplace and a virtual economy from the very beginning: it has a well-established virtual currency, a large, diverse marketplace and content creators have the opportunity to actually make a profit out of it, either supplementing their income or making a living out of it and expanding their business interests from there.

So, would it be a killer app for Oculus Rift? I believe it would. There are, of course, two caveats that Hamlet Au has pointed out, although I really don’t think these should be obstacles. For criticism’s sake, here they are:

  • Oculus Rift is expensive: The consumer model isn’t set for release until 2014, doesn’t even have its features locked in, and is slated to be sold for between $200-300. It’ll be very difficult to build a killer app from that high a price point.
  • Oculus Rift developers are overwhelmingly FPS game-centric: While Jon notes that the Rift will probably induce motion sickness in FPS games, the fact remains that most of the games currently in development for the Rift are FPS. (Read the list here.) With its heavist and most prominent backing from FPS innovators like John Carmack, Gabe Newell, and Cliff Bleszinski, the Rift’s has already been framed as a killer app not for virtual worlds like Second Life, but for first-person shooters.

OK, time for me to give my $0.02 here.

Let’s start with the “Oculus Rift is expensive” bit. Oculus Rift’s price will fall somewhere between $200-300. As far as I remember, Second Life itself has never been exactly the most suitable application for people with ultra-low-end computers: a dedicated and reasonably powerful graphics card was always pretty much de riguer if you didn’t want your frame rates to be in the 0-1.5 range, and a decent CPU, as well as a decently-sized RAM always give SL users an advantage. Oh, and SL has never worked on dial-up connections (which still retained some popularity in SL’s earliest years). Second Life has never been the sort of application that could be properly enjoyed on a computer that was mediocre even ten years ago. It’s a fact that, if you want to really enjoy SL, you need to invest in a powerful, well-configured machine – and such machines cost money.

Now, I know there are members of the community who keep whining about SL’s hardware requirements and say that LL should make SL easier to run on super-low-spec machines that have been made extinct long ago. Regarding this approach, my fiancé, who is ten years my senior, has a story to tell: when Wing Commander was released back in 1990 (I was only three years old then), it was a game for people who had PC-ATs with EGA graphics cards (minimum requirement) and their 80286 (or better) CPUs rated at at least 12 MHz. To really enjoy the game, one needed an 80386 CPU with at least 1 MB of RAM, a VGA graphics card, a decent joystick and a sound card. Back in those days, to upgrade a PC to such specifications resulted in a serious expense. But no one bitched, no one moaned, no one said “make it run in CGA!” (perhaps because everyone hated CGA).

Finally, just as no one forces anyone to join Second Life, no one forces anyone to purchase an Oculus Rift; Oculus Rift will be supported, not required. And here’s a huge difference that many people tend to forget.

Now, let us examine the second “problem”: the fact that most Oculus Rift supporters are developers of first-person-shooter games. Personally, I don’t see any problem with that. Quite the contrary: I believe that, for the first time in Second Life’s history, the mouselook option (which has always been a major nuisance for many users of RLV gear) will benefit from the know-how and experience of these developers, finally becoming usable and useful.

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