Skip to main content

'Doom 3' in virtual reality: we check out John Carmack's prototype head mounted display

'Doom 3' in virtual reality: we check out John Carmack's prototype head mounted display

Share this story

Id Software has just announced Doom 3 BFG Edition, a "director's cut" of the 2004 first-person shooter with new missions as well as refined visuals and gameplay mechanics — including a flashlight on the vest so you can have light while you shoot. But buried in the press release, there's one line in particular that's worth paying attention to: the game will include new support for 3D TVs and head mounted displays. This shouldn't be surprising to those who follow John Carmack on Twitter — he's had a recent obsession over the last six months with head mounted displays. We flew down to Dallas to check out the culmination of this newfound passion: a modified "Oculus Rift" head mounted display (Carmack gave his own first impressions back in May). This week, we were invited into the self-described "mad scientist lair" — video cables all of the place, an old Sony CRT monitor in active use next to his full PC rig, and even some used rocketry components — to test out this early prototype.

Essentially, the Oculus Rift contains a 1280 x 800 screen split in two — 640 x 800 for each eye — with an image that really needs to be seen to be believed. While the images themselves are relatively low-resolution, the immersion factor is pretty fantastic. That's due to the Rift's 90 degree field-of-view, something you won't find in most other HMD's (including Sony's recently-launched 3D head mounted display, which Carmack praised for its high quality and relatively low price point). As you can see in the video, the sides of the round eyepieces have been literally taped off to hide some of the end-of-screen effect that might take away from the experience (reminder: early prototype). The Rift also helps by being surprisingly thin and light, even in this prototype form. The framerate was also a smooth 60fps — something that Carmack focused on almost as much as the latency issue itself.

The gyroscope and accelerometers track your movement — minor adjustments to your field of view as well as precision aiming — while the controller still handles the broad strokes of moving and strafing. The gun can be raised and lowered independently from your view to avoid excessive tilting the head up and down. For 3D — both with traditional glasses or a HMD — the crosshairs on screen have been replaced with a red laser sight, something that Studio Director Tim Willits chose to do for the 3D version (HMD and traditional 3D) after extensive research.

The main knock against Rift at this stage is the aforementioned low resolution screen. We played without our prescription glasses, so our vision was blurry enough that it didn't affect our gameplay. However, one of our video production members with better vision noticed the low resolution and felt it took away from the experience. That's something that we think will improve with time, and the other factors — ergonomics, low latency, smooth framerate, wide field of view — make it a step above most of the headsets we've tried over the years.

So why bring Doom 3 back now? Carmack said virtual reality has been pitched since the Wolfenstein 3D days, but now it's finally hitting a reasonable price point with technology capable of lowering latency to the point where it's a viable option. Carmack's big contribution has been the algorithms used to optimize the code for HMDs and lower latency, some specially designed for Rift, but he acknowledges it's the early days. His hope is that the Rift eventually becomes available as some $500 build-it-yourself kit that sets the bar for casual hobbyists — a less mainstream group, but one that's still forgiving of the quirks of early design. There's even the possibility of a special HMD bundle to go along with Doom 3 BFG Edition. That's just Carmack's guess though — a ZeniMax (Id's owner) representative said they're still "assessing options". Even if the Oculus Rift isn't ready for prime time by this fall, Doom 3 BFG Edition will support a standard 3D mode with glasses and a compatible display as well as other 3D HMDs (like the aforementioned Sony model).

As for the game itself, Doom 3 BFG Edition will be available this fall for the Xbox 360, Windows PCs, and the PlayStation 3 — the first time a Doom game has been available for Sony's console. It'll include Doom 3 and the Resurrection of Evil add-on, both completely optimized for 3D, with 5.1 surround sound, Xbox 360 achievements and PS3 trophies as well. There's also seven new levels that Id's calling "The Lost Mission"; this new content is also getting the full remaster treatment. To round out the package, Id is throwing in the original Doom and Doom 2 — making Doom 3 BFG Edition a comprehensive look at the franchise. There's no release date or pricing yet, aside from a planned fall launch.

Nathan Ingraham contributed to this report.