The first wave of virtual reality systems are now available, but there’s a steep price for admission. Facebook spent $2 billion to acquire startup Oculus VR in 2014, and they’re recouping some of that money with the $600 Oculus Rift. Game developer Valve has partnered with HTC to ship the $800 Vive, which, like Oculus, requires a high-end PC to work. (That PC will likely cost you another $1,000 or more.) But Sony is releasing a $400 PlayStation VR headset in October, which will plug into that $300 PlayStation 4 you have sitting in your den.
It’s important to keep these price points in mind for now, but also to realize that technology costs drop pretty quickly. And a future in which VR headsets will become as commonplace as a game console is likely to happen within a decade.
That’s exciting to think about as you strap on a headset and enter a game like Crytek’s The Climb. The German game developer behind hit series such as Far Cry and Ryse: Son of Rome has created a mountain climbing game that’s based on features you’d find across real mountains in the Austrian, Swiss, and Bavarians Alps. Essentially, the game that allows anyone to experience mountain climbing from the safety of their own home (and with feet firmly planted on the ground).
Matthias Otto, senior level designer at Crytek, has been climbing for three years. He graduated from climbing top rope and doing a bit of lead climbing to spending two days a week climbing at indoor bouldering halls in Frankfurt, Germany.
“It’s an awesome sport,” Otto said. “I’d like to step up to outdoor climbing next, but it’s difficult to find the time. So The Climb in VR has to do for now.”
The core mechanics in the game came from Otto’s own climbing experience. “When I climb, I always look at where I grip, and I translated this directly into our very first climbing prototype,” Otto said. “I also brought in hand crossing. It’s not really a feature, but something you just know instinctively when you climb, that crossing your arms will give you less reach. But it needed to be built into the prototype. And then there is the chalk that we use in the game. It’s not impossible to climb without chalk, but it helps your grip a lot.”
Retaining that grip will be important because of the hyper-realistic visuals that Crytek’s CryEngine technology brings to life through virtual reality. When you play the game, everything is experienced from a first-person “you are there” perspective. That means when you look down, you’ll feel as if you’re hundreds, or even thousands, of feet in the air.
“We believe achieving the most fulfilling experience necessitates an intense discharge of emotions,” Elijah Freeman, executive producer at Crytek, said. “Our highly tuned use of vertigo in The Climb creates some cathartic moments. This helps the player experience events, such as vertigo, that are strange or uncomfortable from the sanctuary of VR.”
VR is ultimately all about a sense of “presence,” as Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey likes to say. And while current flat-screen games can mesmerize players for hours, there’s something unique about being able to step into a virtual world and look in any direction and go anywhere you want.
The Climb experience will actually improve later this year. The Oculus Rift ships with an Xbox One game controller today, but this Fall a pair of Oculus Touch controllers will be sold separately. This will open up the ability for one-to-one controls as users will see their virtual hands and be able to climb more realistically.
“With the touch controllers, it might mean that only real climbers end up with an advantage in the game,” Otto said. “At first, gamers will be more familiar with the Xbox controller.”
Otto believes there’s great potential for virtual reality to be used as real climbing training in the future. For example, there is a securing device called a “friend” that is placed into cracks in the rock for security.
“You could teach the use of this device by showing how a crack needs to look in order to use it safely,” Otto said. “That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. Creating an approximation of real life in VR opens up all sorts of scenarios, and learning in a VR environment has already been shown to be very powerful.”