Mudspike Contributor Charles ‘Chuck Owl’ Ouellet gives us his first experiences of using the Oculus Rift CV1 with DCS.
It is crazy to see how far DCS has come since the release of Black Shark in 2008. Now that we have a fleet of different aircraft at our disposal and that various new maps are being developed, one might wonder what the next step is. The answer: Oculus Rift. Most of you may already have heard of this virtual reality device. The Oculus’ installation is short, simple and sweet; basically plug-and-play. I won’t go into much detail on the straightforward installation setup and jump straight in-game and shoot my first impressions. I will use the word “feel” an unbearable number of times but for a good reason: the VR experience is all about your senses being stimulated by what your body perceives. The Rift plays tricks on your mind and you will realize that you may react in unpredictable ways. This highlights how blurry the lines between reality and simulation have become with the age of virtual reality.
My first “Rift” experience lasted for a couple of hours. Basically, I tried as many different types of aircraft as possible in a variety of scenarios to see what the Rift brings to the table.
The first thing that struck me when I jumped into a helicopter’s cockpit was the sheer size of it. When you look at a 2D flat screen, most aircraft look like they are roughly the same size. The added perception of depth and bigger field of view provided by the Rift scales everything to more realistic proportions. Once I started paying more attention to the cockpit, I was overwhelmed with all these small details I never really noticed before. Taking the Huey as an example, I immediately noticed the sun’s reflections on the windshield, the upper console almost grazing my head, the uncomfortable metal seat behind my back, the gunsight right in my face, and the spacious interior of main cabin. No matter where I looked, I wasn’t sitting at my desk anymore: I was surrounded by metal sheets and rivets, and panels bristling with instrument gauges, caution lights, knobs and switches. The big gauges were readable, but the smaller ones were not. The resolution in the CV1 is much better than previous development kits; good, but not great yet. Despite this mild annoyance, for a second, I felt like I was stepping foot in an actual helicopter. Keep in mind that at that point, I haven’t even fired up the engine yet. Yes, the sense of immersion is THAT impressive.
I gave the Huey, Mi-8 and Gazelle a whirl and flew a couple of hours over Las Vegas. The added sense of depth is what makes a true difference here. I could instinctively judge my height much more accurately than before, allowing me better precision when doing sling load operations. Landing on building rooftops became much easier and felt more natural. Dodging poles and buildings was fun and exciting, but flying at treetop level at 100 kts was a terrifying experience. As I saw the leaves rush under my feet when flying to the “nap-of-the-earth”, my hand tightly gripping the collective felt shaky and tense. One wrong move… and a potentially very real heart attack could follow.
The sense of claustrophobia is also an interesting aspect of the Rift. While the Mi-8’s cockpit felt spacious (and I mean… HUGE!), the Gazelle’s interior is cramped and feels suffocating. The pilot’s body in DCS further adds to the sense of “being” there since you can very clearly see your “own” pilot body including your legs, arms and shoulders. The school bus-like Mi-8’s seat felt comfortable and cozy, while the Gazelle’s interior made me feel like my shoulders were being squeezed by the door and the rotor brake hung mere inches from my face. These “physical” considerations are not something that you would necessarily think of when you fly DCS, and I found it quite exciting to experience the aspect of “physical comfort” of different aircraft; yet another aspect of DCS that is simulated.
In the Rift, prop aircraft like the Mustang also have a little something that is peculiar about them. Seeing your hands on the stick and throttle, your legs on the rudder pedals, your shoulders pressed against the canopy… all that added to the “depth” effect on the length of the wing makes you feel like the aircraft is an extension of your body. This is especially apparent when dogfighting. I tried to set up a massive 15 vs 15 dogfight to see the effects of the Rift on my situational awareness and overall enjoyment of the plane.
Once I started yanking and banking, I felt an incredible rush of adrenaline go through my spine. My palms became sweaty, my eyes strained and my legs sore. You feel like an object moving through a fluid, and the sense of speed in relationship to other moving objects is much scarier than I initially expected. I had to instinctively brace myself several times when narrowly avoiding collisions. Your body has a very physical response to what it “thinks” is real, and the sensation of being there is nothing short of spectacular. Your body will not feel the strain of Gs, but you will feel drained out much quicker when put in combat situations. You won’t feel like you are doing anything particularly different in the Rift than you would do when playing on a 2D screen, but the stress you will feel is very real. Being in a simulator in your bedroom is one thing… but being in the Rift will truly send you back in time.
I remember engaging a very aggressive Messerschmitt and performing multiple scissors, flinging my crate left and right and clinging to my virtual life by performing barrel rolls in desperation. I am generally a calm and collected “virtual pilot”, but this is one of the few times when I was struck with a panic attack. As I saw the earth spin around my canopy, I realized that most of the manoeuvers that you do in a simulator is not the same as doing them in real life. At times, the Rift bridges this gap between simulation and reality. I gradually started realizing how disorienting certain manoeuvers can be… sometimes to the point of feeling nausea and vertigo. As my P-51’s airframe rushed through the clouds dodging streaks of green tracers, I had a much better idea of my relative speed in comparison to other aircraft. The added sense of depth, as I mentioned too many times already, not only affects objects on the ground but also those in the air. Seeing cannon shells burst near my wings didn’t feel like I was in a precarious situation: it felt like death was clawing at the edge of my seat. I almost snapped my neck looking at that Hun on my tail, blasting his cannons away. With the Rift headset, keeping your eyes on enemy fighters can become very challenging if you keep looking behind you to check your tail. Being trapped in my seat and having my body movements restricted because of it, doing the full-scale motions with your head to look for fighters on your sides and rear is much more uncomfortable than I anticipated. After a 2-minute long dogfight, I had intense neck pains and felt completely drained.
It was scary. It was exhausting. It was awesome.
One thing that never fails to amaze me is the sheer size of modern jets. The Rift brings a sense of scale that reminds you of the jets’ place in the aviation food chain. Seeing a pair of F-18s taxi past my tiny Mustang felt like watching two giants casually try not to stomp me over. The sense of height and proportions suddenly feel more “accurate” to a disconcerting level. Once I stepped foot in the A-10C’s cockpit, I felt like I was 10 ft tall, towering over the runway. If I ever decided to jump down on the ground, I was convinced I would break my neck for sure.
After a couple of flights the Rift revealed something fascinating: you finally see the true love modelers have put into their planes. The MiG-21’s cockpit’s is spectacular. The details jump straight in your face: the knobs, the rivets, the scratched paint, the seat, the throttle grip, the depth of the canopy, the radar screen’s edges… I could go on and on about all these little things I noticed. The Hawk’s pit was also a nice surprise. Most DCS users have often qualified the Hawk’s pit like a flat and lifeless surface on a 2D screen. In the Rift, gauges like the ADI appeared more “spherical” than before. The small bumps of the rivet heads gave life to the metal sheets. The front panel seemed thicker and bulkier. The aircraft started to feel “alive”, full of untold stories drowned in a rich and tumultuous history.
In conclusion, the Oculus Rift’s immersive qualities are undeniable. The fact that reading some gauges and switch labels can be difficult at times can be off-putting if you are buying the Oculus to become the “best combat pilot ever”. The Rift isn’t meant to give you an edge over your opponents by “augmenting” your senses. In fact, it makes everything about combat more difficult (and realistic). My experience with the virtual reality forced me to understand why pilots dedicate so much time to training: because combat isn’t supposed to be easy. However, I also learned that some aspects of flight are much easier to master in real life than they are in a flight simulation environment on a 2D screen. In the Rift, landing any aircraft became much easier and instinctive. Flying formation with a wingman felt natural and more or less effortless in comparison to the excruciating level of concentration I usually need.
Virtual Reality hasn’t taught me much about air combat in a fictional war… but it certainly taught me valuable lessons about flying in the real skies.