A Plastic Gun and a Plastic Visor: Creating the Half-Life 2 Virtual Reality Mod

A Plastic Gun and a Plastic Visor: Creating the Half-Life 2 Virtual Reality Mod

Armed with a electric tape-strapped plastic rifle, and a ski-goggle-modded visor attached to his head, Nathan Andrews demonstrated his working Half-Life 2 virtual reality mod in preparation for the upcoming release of the Oculus Rift developer’s kit.

The video, released on YouTube (above), depicts Andrews controlling Valve’s popular shooter through the use of his body movements, instead of a keyboard and mouse.

The gun: an Xbox 360 version of Cabela’s Top Shot Elite controller–strapped with two Hillcrest motion trackers (which can be seen in use here). The visor: a Sony HMZ-T1 head mounted display. The entire setup, minus the desktop PC its connected to, costs roughly $850.

It’s an expensive prototype, but Andrews truly believes in virtual reality (VR) gaming, specifically the Oculus Rift.

HL2VRMod1First shown at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in June 2012, the Oculus Rift headset caught the eye of players and developers alike. Industry veterans like id Software’s John Carmack and Valve’s Gabe Newell pledged their support of the head-tracking device even before it completed its Kickstarter campaign, raising over $2 million in support–greatly exceeding their initial goal.

“I think the Oculus Rift has the potential to completely revolutionize the way we play games,” Andrews told me in an email, “I think it’s only a matter of time, as more and more people get to chance to actually use one, the number of fans will continue to increase.”

A developer version of the Oculus Rift will launch in March, followed by a consumer version at a later date. As developers, and those who pledged at least $300 to the Kickstarter campaign, receive their units, impatient supporters, like Andrews, are already working on adapting games to it.

That process of porting the games over is still new, and it’s going to take some time before someone gets it right. Andrews studied Carmack’s Quakecon and E3 talks where he discussed optimizing games for the Oculus Rift. He learned it’s important to reduce the amount of visual distractions, “things like removing head shaking effects and removing the constant visual distractions of on-screen info by fading out the HUD whenever possible.”

“This definitely helped, and combining the HMZ-T1 with an Xbox 360 controller is definitely enjoyable, but I kept thinking about independent weapon tracking because every time I’d watched a video of early Oculus Rift footage of John Carmack and Doom 3 BFG Edition, that’s where my head kept going. So I decided to give it a shot and the video is the result of those changes.”

Image credit: Oculus VR

The Oculus Rift could live or die on the difficulty of porting games to it. If it’s simple, a developer could afford to devote time and resources to it, but if it’s complicated, it could be an option with little to no value. Andrews isn’t using official Oculus Rift APIs, yet, but getting Half-Life 2 to work on his makeshift setup was mostly harmless, he says. “Honestly, none of the coding was actually very difficult (with the exception of a few out-of-date entries in the Hillcrest API documentation that threw me for a loop),” he said. “There are some big rough edges that need to be worked out, like reworking the on-screen weapon models, and I’d really like to see if I can get a simple solution for positional tracking integration [the ability to track player actions and to replicate them in-game] as well.”

“I don’t think the actual difficulty of adding VR features will be the primary factor in its adoption, I think it’s just going to take people realizing its potential and driving up the demand.”

Andrews’ day job is in software development where he lives in Manhattan. Mod creating, he says, “is a hobby right now, but something I’m definitely passionate about.”

“I’m trying to keep myself to this one project to make sure I get it far enough along before I get sidetracked by something new and shiny, but I have some ideas for other control schemes that I want to look into after this, there are so many new pieces of hardware that it might be hard to choose.”

If you’re as devoted as Andrews is, plastic gun and all, he’s released the mod for free. “You can currently play through all of Half-Life 2, Episode 1 and 2, the Lost Coast, and tons of user-generated maps you can find online.”