It’s been a year since the first Oculus Rift Development Kit was released, and it’s safe to say the world of gaming will never be the same again.
With work on content well underway – games, movies, interactive adventures – the release of a second development kit brings significant upgrades and represents a giant leap towards the final consumer release in 2015. While the first stage of development was very much a creative phase of figuring out what does and doesn’t work in VR, the second stage is about polishing those concepts to work with new technologies like positional tracking.
Let’s take a look at what’s changed, and at the end of this review we’re giving away an Oculus rift Development Kit 2 to one very lucky reader.
Note that this is still very much a development kit, and if you’re buying one from the perspective of a consumer, expecting simple setup and lots of ready to run games – you’ll be sorely disappointed. At the time I started writing this review, there were only a handful of decent working demos available; most developers hadn’t even received their new kits yet.
The Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2 (colloquially known as DK2) is available now for $350 directly from Oculus – $50 more than the original Dev Kit, and if ordered today, it’s expected to ship in October. There is no affordable competition at the moment, though Sony is working on Project Morpheus for the PS4, and Samsung is rumored to be working on a device with licensed technology from Oculus. Google also released Cardboard, a cheap DIY prototype that works with Android phones.
The first thing owners of the previous dev kit will notice is that there’s no durable plastic “collectors” box included. It’s obviously not a deal breaker, but for users who took their Rift out to present demonstrations, or for those buying the early Rifts hoping they’ll be worth money someday (seriously, that’s a thing), it’s a bit of a disappointment. If you have one, the old box can be used to house the DK2 comfortably.
- Headset, with combined USB and HDMI cable
- IR camera, plus USB and IR sync cable (2.5mm plug)
- DVI to HDMI converter, as the Rift no longer takes DVI input.
- Two sets of lenses, for normal (A) and short-sighted (B) users.
- Screen / lens wipe
- Power adapter with international plugs.
DK1 was running an LED screen at 1280 x 720, effectively rendering 640 x 720 for each eye. The low resolution was particularly noticeable. For DK2, the screen has been upgraded to an OLED model running 1920 x 1080, or 960 x 1080 per eye, which is precisely 2.25x more pixels. It’s a significant upgrade in terms of resolution alone, though individual pixels can still be seen.
The “screen door” effect was ever present in DK1 – a persistent overlay that looked as if you were viewing the world through a meshed screen door. With DK2, the effect is still present – but so significantly reduced that it’s much easier to forget it’s there while immersed in a game.
DK1 users also reported a heavy motion blur when moving their head around – a contributing factor of VR sickness. This too has been largely eliminated in DK2 thanks to the higher quality OLED screen.
It’s difficult to describe in words though: for a good approximation of the difference in quality, check out Michael Blix’s Oculus Rift VR Simulator – select 1080p and “low persistence” for DK2, and compare directly DK1. You can also see what the view from the final consumer release may be like with the rumored resolution upgrade, and even how it might look with 4K screen.
The new screen is also higher contrast with more vibrant colours; the DK1 tended to be a little murky and grey.
However, it’s not all good news.
The different screen type appears to have introduced a new kind of problem, known colloquially as the “purple smear” and more technically as “chromatic aberrations”. It seems to occur around black areas – shadows and such – resulting in a smeary purple after-image where the black was previously displayed, which quickly fades as it seems to “catch up”. Although noticeable in some demos, I haven’t personally found it detracts significantly from an experience; others have. It appears it may be correctable in software, by nudging the colour values of pure black and thereby keeping the colours illuminated ever so slightly, but this hasn’t been implemented by everyone yet.
The total field of view is also apparently smaller from 110 degrees down to 100, but I can’t honestly say I’d noticed. This video from reddit user imfromspaceman illustrates the horizontal field of view differences by filming the screen directly – notice also how washed out DK1 looks in comparison.
Following a dissection of the hardware, it was discovered that the screen is in fact taken straight from a Samsung Galaxy Note 3.
The main shape of the Oculus Rift hasn’t changed significantly, but there are a number of big design changes elsewhere.
First on the list is the absence of a control box – the required components have been integrated into the Rift headset itself – but this comes at the cost of an additional 60 grams of weight (440 grams compared to 380 grams). In practice, the weight difference is negligible. A power button is now included on the left side (when viewed from the front).
This also means that two cables must be run into the Rift, for USB and HDMI – but thankfully these have been combined with a nylon sheath to appear as a single cable. The cable also now runs along the central headstrap rather than off to the side, a welcome move that results in less cable acrobatics.
Also on the main enclosure is a passthrough USB and 2.5mm IR camera sync port, hidden under a rubber cover. It’s been speculated that the IR sync port opens the possibilities of reverse IR tracking in a similar way to the WiiMote does it: mounting the camera on the headset itself to then read IR tracking markers around a room, perhaps. However, no practical application of this has been demonstrated yet.
A small LED next to the power buttons indicates the status; orange is off, blue is on.
Positional Tracking and the Camera
Included in the package (though not strictly required for operation) is a new infra-red camera. Behind the face of the Rift are 40 high intensity IR LEDs, though you can’t actually see them. Combined with the camera, this adds positional tracking. If you’re not sure what this means, remember that the DK1 essentially fixed your head in one position, tracking only the rotation around a fixed point (the centre of your head). Leaning in to pick up something, standing up or crouching, would all result in a quick feeling or nausea created by the disconnect of what your eyes are seeing and what your brain is expecting. Positional tracking enables you have full motion freedom in the VR environment: you can sit down, stand up, lean forwards or even look around a corner.
In practice, the camera is surprisingly good, but works best when placed at a distance of about 5 feet from the Rift. If you take a full turn away from the camera, tracking is lost and can result in a jarring jump from one position to another (but not always). In demos that have implemented positional tracking, the effect is an astounding improvement.
The camera also has two cables; one USB that goes to your computer and occupies another USB port (the Rift itself takes one) as well as an IR sync cable, which attaches to the Rift cable via a breakout box. The box also has a DC input for a power supply (included), though this isn’t required if your USB ports can supply sufficient power. I plugged mine in anyway, just to be safe – and because users have reported this fixes some cases of screen stuttering.
Setup and SDK Woes
Working with the first dev kit was a relatively simple affair for any typical gamer, and involved either cloning or extending your existing display. Sadly, the process has become ridiculously complex for the second iteration – but this was to be expected and can be explained.
In order to build a truly consumer-friendly device, the requirement to extend your desktop or change primary monitor had to be removed. Instead, Oculus SDK v0.4 introduces a “Direct To Rift” mode, which leverages the Rift as just another device rather than a monitor. In this mode, a small window appears on your main screen, and the output is piped into the Rift. You don’t need to change monitor settings, refresh rates or resolutions. It’s admirable and clearly a better approach that’s needed for the final consumer release – but literally nothing except the Oculus demo works with it yet.
Instead, nearly every current game and demo requires that you disable the new Oculus service driver, de-activate Direct-to-Rift mode, and use the extended desktop method instead. Sadly, display mirroring no longer works, as the screen in the Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2 expects a portrait orientation and must be rotated 90 degrees in the display settings (probably something to do with it being pulled straight from a mobile phone). It varies by demo as to whether the Rift should be set as primary or secondary, and whether the game launcher should run on the main monitor, or pushed over to the Rift before hitting start. Thankfully, Reddit user Bilago quickly created the unofficial Oculus Service Manager which simplifies the process.
They’ve also simplified the user setup system, allowing you to set different IPDs and player heights and quickly switch without editing files.
As games are recompiled and optimized for SDK v0.4, all this will become a non-issue and the Oculus will truly be consumer-ready, but I wanted to highlight it as things are considerably more difficult at the moment to get working than they were with DK1.
In DK1, there were 3 different lenses, two for varying levels of short-sightedness. With DK2, only two are supplied; the second supposedly works for all short-sighted users. You can still choose the A cups if you wish to wear glasses, and the screen can be adjusted in the same way.
Rather than the overtly convex lens of DK1, DK2 lenses are flat, at least on the part facing your eye. I’m no optical physicist, but it seems to make them a lot less forgiving when it comes to positioning the headset – one millimetre up or down away from the optimal position on your eyes, and blurriness rapidly encroaches. There’s a clearly defined sweet spot.
The lenses are slightly larger in width, too, which results in less dead peripheral vision areas. If you look down sharply, you can still see your hands on the keyboard, but it’s a lot harder than the DK1.
Some users have bemoaned the fact that there’s still no physical IPD adjustment – it’s fixed at 63.5mm – but I’m not sure how feasible that would be, even for a consumer release.
Low-End PCs Beware
You knew the day was coming when you’d need to upgrade: that day is now. Without decent hardware driving the display, the forced 75Hz refresh rate can cause disturbing stuttering. Some of this is due to unoptimized code on many demos and the new SDK, but with a top of the line R9-290X graphics card, I wasn’t really expecting any issues. That said, the rest of my PC may not be up to scratch with only 4 gigabytes of RAM. But the point is, you really need a beefy machine to experience virtual reality at it’s best – and you’re going to need yet another speed bump when the final consumer version is released (with even higher resolution). If you can’t afford to upgrade now, save your cash and co-incide an upgrade with the consumer release next year.
If you’re the kind of person who likes to try everything, give feedback to developers, and don’t mind tweaking things for half hour just to get something working – you’ll find a new demo almost every day. If you’re like me and would rather wait for the more polished experiences, they are few and far between – but that’s okay. The Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 is wonderfully raw and a complete mess, but I’m glad I’m along for the ride. I’m not going to touch on Rift games too much, because anything I write will be outdated by the time this piece is published – things really are moving that fast.
The game I’ve personally grown most fond of when using the DK2 is actually MineCraft – or at least, the MineCrift mod. Which is somewhat curious because the mod itself is a year old. At least, it was until yesterday (at the time of writing), when a new version was released which adds positional tracking. See what I mean about writing outdated info?
Should You Get One?
The Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 represents a significant improvement over DK1 – enough that games (when you finally get them to work), now feel genuinely playable, and not just in a “Wow, this is really cool but now I feel a bit sick and everything’s gone fuzzy.” kind of way. If the final consumer release hardware is even better than this, we’re in for a real treat.
The setup process and general usability though – that’s even more difficult than before, and I say that as a geek who re-installs Windows for fun on the weekends. Unless you’re prepared to put in the time to tweak settings, you’re not going to have a good time as a gamer with the DK2. As a VR developer, you’ll probably be in heaven.
How Do I Win The Oculus Rift Development Kit 2?
The winner will be selected at random and informed via email. View the list of winners here.