Oculus Rift – DK2 – Elite Dangerous – Breaking the Flow

Feeding Edge’s Oculus Rift DK2 (Development Kit version 2) arrived last week. I had an original Oculus Rift (Pre-Facebook buyout) form the Kickstarter campaign. It is amazing looking back and seen that I wrote about that in August 2013! How time flies!
The new DK2 is a big leap in technology, though it comes in a much less impressive cardboard box, rather than the foam filled attache case of the original one.

The new unit is smaller and lighter but boasts a huge increase in picture quality. There have been quite a few ergonomic tweaks too.

The placing of the wires to the unit are now in the centre top and the cable is fed over the top head strap so it doesn’t get in the way as much as the side dangling cable of the DK1.

The old control box form the DK1 is gone, this used to take all the connections and a power switch etc. It was often the first thing to fall on the floor as the cables got tangled up.
The eye pieces are noticeably bigger too, presumably to get all that extra resolution and field of view in.

Aside from the resolution of the screens the biggest change is the external tracking of the Rift’s position. DK1 knew you were turning and tipping but if you stepped or moved side to side it had no idea. DK2 comes with a sensor that need to be mounted and pointing at the rift. It can, with software that bothers to use it, tell if you are near of far right or left, up or down relative the the sensor. It is not a kinect, but it does give 3d space positioning.
My neighbours may glance up and see this tripod and thing it is facing out of the window, when in fact it is pointing at me!

Getting the rift running on the Mac was a doddle as usual. With no control box the connections are simply and HDMI for the display and two USB connections one for the camera device and one for the headset. The power lead runs into a tiny splitter block and a synch lead runs from that to the camera sensor.
It was more tricky getting it to run on windows 8.1. though. My HP laptop has 2 gfx cards and trying to persuade it to extend the display and put primary rendered graphics on the rift is a bit of a pain. I ended up with the primary display 90 turning itself 90 degrees and the secondary rift flipped 180 degrees in landscape. The demo/tuning application runs in direct mode so you don’t need any of this but lots of the other things rely on extended desktop. You can of course make rift your primary display but it is not then delivered a one image but a bit in the left eye and a bit in the right so it makes launching things difficult.
However after a bit of “well thats just windows isn’t it!” I sparked up the Elite Dangerous Beta. This had upgraded since the last time. Elite has a display on secondary option though this was not DK2 direct mode it was possible to make it work.
I was instantly blown away by the improvements to the visual resolution of DK2. My laptop managed to cope too with the environment and it may not be the best gaming rig in the world but it certainly worked. I launched out into space and got chills running down my spine with the sense of being there as the shadow of the cockpit struts moved across my field of view as I turned away from the star I was docked near. It is really really good. I mapped a button on the stick to re centre the rift view though as there was a slight drift. However 2 beta things and on windows 8.1 it was not a huge problem.
I flew around for a while taking in the scenery then got into a slight dogfight in space. Being able to pull tight turns but look up and backwards to spot the bad guy was really effective. However I did suffer a little from not being able to see my controls. Using a joystick with loads of buttons is great, but I did not realise how much I had relied on seeing button 7 ! So it did not take my adversary very long to break my ship down. In the previous beta of Elite the canopy would crack than the ship would blow and you ejected. The new version before the cracking I got sparks and smoke filling the cockpit. This was an incredible effect in the Rift. The combination of the sense of being there in the vastness of space, with the confinement of sitting in a smoking capsule is something I will remember as a key moment in my gaming and VR experiences. The rift makes sense in games like this as you probably would have a helmet on anyway. That is something a lot of games designers could consider. Rather than trying to pretend its not something you have on, embracing it and making it part of the game narrative.
I experienced a crash, in a typical windows style, whilst trying to dock as a space station. I can’t tell if it was the rift, the game or the machine that did it but at a key moment of concentration and full immersion the shock of being unplugged from the environment, to loose the cockpit and the space around me to be replaced by half of the windows desktop in each eye was horrendous. It seems the Rift and Elite where generating a different type of gaming Flow. I was not experiencing flow because the task had become automatic. I was concentrating on landing the ship in the right place. It required a lot of though. However, mentally I was experiencing sensory flow. I had stopped considering the medium as a barrier, or as anything other than real. For reality to be turned off with no warning created a mental jolt. Its a very strange feeling and one that took a few moments to analyse and think about. It shows the power of these imagination enhancers and our blended reality. I should be used to this stuff but it still hits me 🙂

Elite Dangerous Beta – #like

Back in the mid 80’s a game arrived, initially only on the BBC micro computers, that anyone I knew who was a gamer was very much into. That was Elite. It marked a departure from the arcade style side scrolling platform games and gave us the freedom to fly a spaceship in a massive galaxy. Everything was a line drawing, vector graphic style. That did not matter as the feel of the game and the spirit of it captured our collective imagination. It was 10 years on from having seen the epic space dogfighting in Star Wars. Now we had the chance to engage in space battles and roam the galaxy from our own bedrooms.
A key element was trading, that got you cash to kit up your ship. You had to play the supply and demand correctly. Buying goods cheap and selling them for a better price to make a profit (after taking expenses like fuel into consideration).
Before you could trade though you had to dock with the various space stations across the galaxy. These spinning objects with the look of a D&D dice were key. They rotated slowly around the axis that led to their entry port. You had to match you speed and rotation to try and get through the airlock. Many a ship was lost smashing into the station, over compensating or rotating the wrong way. If you made it though and made enough money you could buy a docking computer. This did the job and on my C64 version is played the Blue Danube as we were slowly lined up to dock.
Key to all this though was the fighting, the cat and mouse of 3d space battles. Leading the target as you pull a tight turn and let loos with the lasers. The more of this that you did the higher your ranking from mostly harmless up to Elite. The iconic scanner telling you the height and position of the other ships relative to you has been much copied since.
We are now in a era where the best copy of all is being made. Elite Dangerous is the full 21st century remake of the game. It was also funded in the new 21st century way of crowd funding. The Kickstarter campaign raised an awful lot of money and enabled David Braben and his company to get building this new epic free roamer. As a backer as a sufficient level you get access to play the alphas and the betas of the game. This early access is of course helping the company out aswell as making the backers feel special and part of something. A brand and fan base for a game like Elite is made up of people my age. It is obviously a game that we all played 30 years ago.
I have of course been playing it, and also giving it a go on Oculus Rift, though I am waiting on my DK2 to play it properly with the headset.
It is most certainly Elite. It feels like it did back then. Though it looks very different. Of course we no longer have simple vector graphics, we have fully rendered ships and stations with intricate detail. Planets and a stars, moons, and space phenomena that add to the atmosphere.

Docking has a whole extra experience. You still have to navigate through the rotating airlocks, but you actually end up in the station and have to find your allocated docking back and perform a gently landing manoeuvre to engage with the star port services.

I had been playing using a 360 style joypad as I generally use those on console games so figured it would be better than the keyboard. It turned out that things got a little tricky. So I bought F.L.Y5 fancy stick and throttle. When I did that the game got way better, felt even more immersive. I had not used a stick like that for many years. I used to play Combat Flight Sim 2 over dialup modems in the late 90’s with a force feedback sidewinder. I should have remembered how awesome that felt sooner!

I am playing on a mid to high range windows laptop (the Mac version will not be for a while yet) but it’s flying pretty well.
With the stick I managed to get docked more accurately and quickly, even won a few more of the training scenarios (which had proved tricky).
What has been great though is just entering the online universe. There are obviously other people there, but you can also just go about your business and travel around the systems that are open for the beta doing you thing.
I did get involved in an NPC space dogfight, it was going on for a 15 mins or so. I felt I was just about to win when I was joined by what I think was another human player. They spotted my cargo and my lack of health after the long battle and set upon me. I had to try and flee. The tension as the hyperdrive powers up and the 5 second countdown, whilst under intense fire trying to shake the attacker was really exciting. I made it out of the system and got repaired. The free form exploring and trading had made the galaxy already feel like a place. I tweeted I felt like I had been somewhere. This is a key element of a virtual world, of a metaverse.
It is great to be speeding along and take a look out of your cockpit window

Of course Elite has competition, Star Citizen a massively funder space drama from the creator of Wing Commander (which was inspired by Elite), and the immensely impressive looking No Man’s Sky.
The latter is, like Elite, procedurally generated, though it has the richness of visit the planets, seeing other life forms evolving. It’s a different game but is going to be a free roaming space epic too.
I think there is room for all of them. This is a genre seeing a real next generation push.
Back to the beta, being a beta it will crash and have the odd problem but it has been very stable for me. The only problem I had was when there was a ship parked in my docking bay. I double checked the numbers and it was my bay and it was not shifting. I couldn’t tell if it was a bug or a simulation of a lack of admin efficient at the base.

I can tell you that in my frustration suggesting a ship move with a small burst of laser fire at the badly parked ship does indeed lead to a rapid response from the authorities, thats another ship lost then!
I flew a few trade missions and made a little bit of cash and noticed I could buys docking computer. I was not overly surprised, but very happy when I engaged that whilst heading to a star port and in kicked the Blue Danube again. Not an 8-bit rendition of course, but a fully realised orchestral recoding.
Elite Dangerous is Elite, fully coloured in and with other people in there with you. It is looking very promising and I am enjoying learning the ropes again.
I should also add that the predlets were fascinated too. Just as when I started playing minecraft they were looking over my shoulder. Predlet 2.0 took to the stars and go into his first dogfight. It is not obvious how to bank, turn and yaw in space, it may be easier to learn planes first. However he did get a few good shots in before getting got. They have also seen it sat in the cockpit wearing the original Oculus Rift and were amazed at that too. So this is not just us old gamers yearning for the past. This is exciting stuff for all of us.
See you in space, look for Commander Epredator 🙂