Oculus Rift – Virtual reality is almost here
For a long time, the hopes and dreams of many virtual reality fans could be summed up with two words: Oculus Rift. Helped by the rise of cheap smartphone displays, Oculus Rift co-founder Palmer Luckey took a technology that most people considered a retro curiosity and convinced them that it could change the world. The Rift lets you skydive without a parachute. It helped artists show the world through another person’s eyes. It simulated beheading. It put you in fictional settings that ranged from kaiju-fighting robots to Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment. While “Oculus Rift” was no longer a synonym for “virtual reality,” Oculus remained a central player, especially after Facebook purchased it for an estimated $2 billion.
Oculus rarely brags about its industrial design, but one of the best things it’s done is make something so stereotypically geeky look (relatively) natural. The $599 consumer Rift is full of clever and thoughtful touches, starting with the delightfully soft rubberized carrying case it ships in, which makes the whole thing feel like a cyberpunk hacker’s console. The all-black headset is downright understated by gaming hardware standards, with a front of smooth rubber, sides coated in coarse cloth, and lenses surrounded by a web of lycra. It’s tethered to a PC by a single wire, which runs out your left temple and along one of the adjustable side straps.
Getting Oculus Rift to fit right can prove elusive at first. While there’s a small focus knob at the bottom, a lot of the screen’s clarity depends on precisely how it’s angled toward your eyes, and it’s easy to give yourself a headache by strapping it as tightly as possible to keep the best fit. But once you get used to wearing it, the headset feels lighter and more comfortable than most of its competition, sealing against your face with a firm but pliable ring of foam. Since I have yet to break a sweat in the Rift, I can’t say how easy it is to clean, but the ring is removable and replaceable — although there’s no spare included. I also don’t have to deal with wearing glasses, they could either fit the headset over moderately-sized frames or, depending on their prescription, get the screen in focus without them.
Along with a cylindrical black tracking camera on a slender 8-inch stand, Oculus Rift comes with two accessories: an Xbox One gamepad and a small, simple device called the Oculus Remote. Unlike Sony and HTC, Oculus Rift isn’t launching with a full controller of its own, since its Oculus Touch hardware will arrive in the second half of this year. For now, the chunky and colorful Xbox gamepad seems slightly out of place alongside the sleek Oculus Rift design. The oval-shaped black remote, by contrast, fits right in, although its construction doesn’t feel as solid as the rest of the system.
The 4-meter headset tether ends with one USB and one HDMI port, and the tracking camera is plugged in with its own USB cable — there’s no external power cable or controller box for either piece. You’ll just download Oculus Rift’ Windows app and run through a short, though descriptive, setup checklist before getting into VR. Granted, getting to this point requires having a powerful gaming desktop, which can produce plenty of glitches on its own. And since most PCs have only one HDMI port, you’ll need to use a different connection for your monitor, an extra and not totally intuitive step for many people. For the most part, though, it’s as easy as I can imagine installing a totally new kind of computer hardware to be.
None of this matters if the view from inside the Rift is no good — and fortunately, it holds up. The headset contains a pair of lenses, a gyroscope and accelerometer, a pair of decent-quality removable earphones, and two 1200 x 1080 screens. The image they produce is bright and relatively clear (although it still has a bit of the graininess that almost all VR headsets struggle with), and the overall resolution is about the same as the single-screened Gear VR. Any bright lights in the center of the virtual world sometimes reflect what looks like a lens flare around the edges of your vision, but it’s minimally distracting. The Rift’s field of view doesn’t seem better than previous versions, but it’s wide enough to give you a decent amount of peripheral vision. There’s almost no visible latency; as long as you stay within sight of the camera, it mirrors your head movement precisely, even when you turn completely around.
Oculus Riftt’s single-tracking camera doesn’t give you as much space to move around in as the “room-scale” HTC Vive or a two-camera Oculus Touch setup, but it supports a few steps in any direction; I measured a functional square of space around six and a half feet wide and four and a half deep. The biggest problem is that it’s impossible to tell where that space ends until you step outside it, causing a sickening jerk as the world stops responding to your motion. Right now, it’s not particularly noticeable, because almost none of the Rift launch titles ask you to move. A few make sense standing up, like the diorama-like tower defense game Defense Grid 2, but the vast majority seem intended to play in a stationary chair, looking straight forward with occasional turns of the head.
The result is a lot of games where VR feels like an addition, not a transformation. Most of the first-person experiences could translate to flat screens without much trouble, and some — like space exploration game Adrift — are already coming to both VR and flatscreen platforms like PC and PlayStation 4. The plethora of third-person action games like Lucky’s Tale might need to be redesigned slightly for players who can’t lean over the environments, but they’re still close adaptations of established formats. The titles that feel most clearly designed for virtual reality were early experiments that came to Gear VR before the consumer Rift. That includes Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, which takes advantage of a headset’s isolating effects, and Darknet, whose sprawling puzzle maps would look painfully cramped on a smaller screen.
The ultimate goal for VR gaming, though, is to get to a point where we’re talking about experiences instead of the technology that enables them. And Oculus Rift’s launch is the first time I’ve played anything that could rival a decently made non-VR computer game for polish and scope. Having high-quality hardware to play with has helped make this possible — nothing is fun if you can’t see the images clearly and get sick after half an hour, two common problems with the very first Rift development kits. So has the fact that developers now stand some chance of making money off their work. Whatever the exact confluence of factors, Chronos and EVE: Valkyrie are more than just good picks if you happen to have a VR headset. If you like flying or fighting in video games, they’ll make you want a VR headset so you can play them — maybe not badly enough to spend $600, but it’s a start.
If you’re not interested in playing games, you can experience a few interactive short films on the Rift, like Oculus’ Lost or Penrose’s The Rose and I. Virtual reality studio Jaunt has an app, and Oculus has its own photo and video tools, which play both VR and non-VR files from your PC or sources like Twitch and Facebook. But the Rift doesn’t seem to have imported the Gear VR’s various non-gaming social experiences, its VR versions of Netflix and Hulu, or its large collection of 360-degree video apps. A feature that would have allowed Xbox One owners to stream non-VR console games to the headset, promised last year, also won’t be live at launch.
Whatever else you can do, there’s no doubt that games like EVE: Valkyrie and Chronosprovide the headset’s most immersive moments. When we talk about “immersion” in VR, we’re often talking about two separate effects. The first is a sense of realism, of connecting your physical body perfectly to your virtual presence. The second is the sort of immersion that a really engrossing role-playing game like Fallout can induce: the knowledge that you could lose a whole weekend to it without even noticing. Think of it as “I’m really there” versus “I’m never leaving.”
Playing non-VR video games is already a sedentary activity, and I find myself moving even less in the Rift, since I can’t get distracted by my phone or lean over to grab a drink of water. As Oculus writes on a warning screen that appears every time you boot up the Rift: “In using this headset, you will lose the ability to see and hear what’s actually around you.” In third-person experiences, you can’t even see that you have a body. I come out of stand-up VR games energized, even when my arms ache and I’m sweating. I leave long-seated Rift sessions with the same fatigue I get from spending a night hunched over my gaming PC, with the occasional side of nausea and eye strain.
I’m in no position to advise anyone on the potential medical risks of VR, but I haven’t had any serious issues with Oculus Rift so far. Very long virtual reality excursions (think days, not hours) have anecdotally weakened people’s eyesight for short periods, and my own eyes would hurt a little after a couple of hours, like a more extreme version of staring at a computer screen late into the night. My other problems have been similarly mundane. VR’s constant head tilts exacerbate a neck and shoulder pain that I developed a few months ago, and games that involve a lot of fast “walking” with a controller still make me sick. At one point I got out of a morning session dizzy and lightheaded; I wondered if I had finally experienced some kind of reaction to leaving reality until I realized that I was just hungry after pushing my meals back for more Rift time.
“Just a few more months” has been the mantra of virtual reality since people started getting excited about the Oculus Rift, and saying it after the headset is released feels like either a huge cop-out or a sign that the VR we want may never actually arrive. But it’s impossible to think of all the unreleased Oculus Touch experiences I’ve tried — like three-dimensional painting tool Quill, Old West shooting gallery Dead & Buried, and a VR version of Rock Band — and not feel like the Rift’s best days are still ahead of it.
For the first time, though, there’s something to do while you wait. The high cost of buying and running high-end VR headsets makes them inaccessible to many people, and the Rift in particular is relentlessly focused on gaming. Within these limitations, though, Oculus Rift makes a good case for seated VR, and it lays a solid foundation for what’s to come. The headset you can buy today is not Oculus’ most ambitious vision for virtual reality — but it’s a vision that Oculus Rift has successfully delivered on.
* Great-looking industrial design
* A few really good seated VR games
* Promising future game catalog with Touch controllers
* Expensive, especially with gaming PC cost figured in
* Not much to do outside gaming
* Lack of motion controls at launch is a big weakness