The Oculus Rift has finally arrived, and is making heads turn (literally) all over the gaming community. No longer are we confined to to peering through a flat window into the gaming worlds we love so much; with the Rift, we can teleport right into it. While it may not be the holy grail of virtual reality yet, it’s off to a bloody incredible start.
Read on to find out what the Oculus Rift is exactly, and to win yourself a free Development Kit.
What is the Oculus Rift?
The Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset, which I’ve followed religiously since they launched a Kickstarter last year – and right now, every gamer is dying to get their hands on one (with the sole exception of my Technophilia co-host Dave LeClair, who collects retro NES games anyway so he doesn’t really count).
But what is a virtual reality headset anyway? A combination of two things really. Firstly, 3D visuals – just as your eyes perceive the real world. This is more than simple cross-eyed viewing though, and involves a complex series of transformations to wrap the view around and produce large field of vision – 110 degrees in the Rift, in fact. Secondly – and this is where the Oculus really becomes something amazing – head tracking – so that when you move your head to look up, your view of the virtual world adjusts accordingly. You can look around with a full 360 degree of freedom, including right behind you. Though certainly not the first of its kind, it is the first to be made at an affordable consumer price point.
Disclaimer: The device is not being sold or marketed as a finished product yet, but as a development kit for $300. Other products cost tens of thousands of dollars, and are limited to high-end military applications – the Oculus Rift aims to bring virtual reality to the masses. But I must stress that point again – this is not a finished product.
I must admit, I’m a little hesistant to post a review of a development kit. This is not the final product, and it not being marketed as such on any consumer channels. The purpose of releasing it is to mainly get developers on board with creating content for the device and to push forward progress. That said, I think it’s an incredible product even in its current state, and I do want to let you all know as much as I can about it, so I decided to go ahead with a review anyway.
Like all of our hardware reviews, this is also a giveaway; we have placed a pre-order, and it should be with the winner within a few months of the competition ending. We will of course also be reviewing the final consumer version when it’s released next year, but take this “review” as it is: a preview that does not represent the quality of the final product.
The Rift comes with its own sleek plastic case for transporting the unit and all the bits; and there are a lot of bits.
Here’s what’s inside:
- 3-ft DVI cable
- 3-ft HDMI cable
- 6-ft HDMI cable
- 3-ft USB cable
- Power adapter with 3 plugs for all major countries
- DVI to HDMI adapter
- 3 sets of lenses (more on these in a moment)
- Headset and wired control box; this is not detachable
Hardware, and how does it work?
The headset itself consists of a 7-inch 1280 x 800 (16:10 ratio) screen in a plastic headmount with foam padding. There are small meshed openings underneath to avoid steam from accumulating.
A distorted stereo display must be fed into the Rift, as you can see on the photo below. Each eye receives approximately 640 x 800 pixels, which are then distorted again by the lenses to give the realistic and immersive impression of actually being there.
Don’t ever take the lens off for long, or you’ll get nasty dust inside the main panel – but in the interests of science:
Three lenses are supplied:
- Set A are the largest, used for those with 20/20 vision, whilst wearing corrective lens or glasses, and those with long-sighted vision (for which no glasses are needed – the display is infinitely focussed).
- Sets B and C are for those who are short-sighted, and are smaller in size than set A. C is the strongest correction of the two, but I still can’t figure out exactly which is best for me, so I probably lie somewhere in between the two
The headset is secured by an adjustable strap around and over your head; the total weight is about 380g, and is quite comfortable.
To accomodate for people who wear corrective glasses and different eye projections, the front panel can be adjusted back and forward with the help of a small coin inserted into the slots on either side. I’m not sure why they didn’t just make a little plastic knobs to adjust those without a coin.
Using the Rift
Setup on the hardware side is remarkably simple – the control unit accepts either DVI or HDMI input, as well as power and a standard mini-USB cable. The device is recognised as a display, and must be set either as the primary output, or more typically as a clone of your main desktop. In either case, the resolution must be set to 1280 x 800. That’s it – the rest is handled by whatever software you’re using, which varies from plug and play to hours of tweaking.
What can you play with the Oculus Rift?
Make no mistake, this is a development kit – the whole purpose of which is to generate content – so naturally what’s out there already is somewhat minimal. That said, development is progressing quickly and the amount of content grows daily – you can find a full list of games and apps either released or planned at RiftEnabled.com
First up, we have Tuscany demo – produced by the Oculus team themselves and a good basic introduction to VR. It’s a beautiful little house in the middle of some mountains – that’s it. You can walk around the house and the garden, stand on the balcony, and generally admire things.
The Epic Citadel demo is included when you download the Oculus-ready Unreal Development Kit (UDK) from the Oculus Developer Center (requires registration) – you’ll find it in the “mobile” maps folder. It’s the same citadel that was shown off as a tech demo when Unreal Engine was shown for mobile devices, and it is indeed a stunning environment. Sadly, you can’t enter any of the houses.
Once you’re bored of the Epic Citadel environment, be sure to download RiftCoaster – in which someone adapted the Epic Citidel to include a rollercoaster. Sit down, strap in, and prepare to be terrified. Yes, it’s that real. (Video from John Rollingson)
The official “launch game” of the Oculus Rift development kit is Team Fortress 2, a free to play but ageing first person shooter. It has fully native support, but the menus are less than ideal – a problem faced by many Riftable games at the moment. Though I did enjoy Team Fortress 2 in its heyday, I can’t say I found the Rift-enabled experience is all that compelling.
Half Life 2 was given official support just a few days ago at the time of writing; but even before that, unofficial support could with the help of unofficial third party Vire.io drivers, currently in beta. They work with a handful DirectX 9 games, including Mirrors Edge, Portal 2 and Left 4 Dead.
Cymatic Bruce is the most prolific Oculus owner around, and has produced lots of videos to whet your appetite as well as the occasional livestream.
What’s it like?
In an ideal Oculus Rift experience – it’s incredible. The first time I entered the Tuscany demo, I was stunned at the feeling of “being there”. It’s a beautiful little house, with some trees outside, and a balcony from which you can admire the surrounding mountains. Notice how I said “entered” instead of “played” – it really does feel like you’re being transported to another world, and coming back from it is as disorienting as you would expect.
The field of vision is around 110 degrees; this translates to a slight border around what you see. If you strain your eyes directly downward, you can see out the air grills, for instance. As someone who normally wears glasses, it really isn’t that noticable; imagine only looking through your glasses lenses and blocking out a little of your extreme peripheral vision and you’d be pretty close to the experience. This varies by how far the lenses are from eyes of course; if you have it adjusted to the furthest setting and are wearing glasses, the experience is not as good, yet still impressive.
There are two major flaws with the Rift experience (using the Development Kit) right now – the first being of course the resolution – looking at objects up close is fine, but distant objects are terrible. I don’t personally think it’s as bad as some have portrayed it be, but then I’m the kind of gamer who whacks the resolution down in order to get a smoother experience, rather than upping it for better graphics but lower frame rate. The “screendoor effect” is the second flaw – by which the space between pixels can actually be observed, as if the users were looking at the world through a screendoor. Again though, this disappears somewhat when you’re actually engaged with the world.
Reddit user MHD420 submitted this mock up of how it looks to someone actually using Rift, and I think it’s a fairly accurate depiction.
Using a traditional mouse and keyboard to manoeuvre around the virtual world is particularly annoying; having your arms tied to a fixed position is just uncomfortable, and if you need a key which your finger isn’t already on, you’re either faced with removing the headset or peering awkwardly through the bottom grill to reposition your fingers. Though I don’t have a wired Xbox controller to test with, I have been using the Razer Hydra motion controller – something I’ll be reviewing fully in a few months – and that certainly enhances the experience no end. However, this is a review of the Rift, not the Hydra controller, but just bear in mind a keyboard is not Rift-friendly at all.
Latency has been mentioned by some; this is the time between moving your head and the screen moving, but I haven’t noticed an issue there at all. More of an issue perhaps is the motion blur that occurs when moving.
Anytime a disconnect occurs between what your physical body is doing and what your brain is experiencing through its senses, there’s a chance you’ll induce some kind of motion sickness. This can be as simple as walking your character around the virtual world, or bending over (the Oculus doesn’t track movement, only 360 rotation around a fixed point). It varies by person, and by experience level with virtual reality. Right now, I can use the Rift for up to an hour or so. Although the first time I tried it, 10-15 minutes was my limit – after that, I felt a little queasy. My wife, on the hand, spent 10 minutes in the Epic Citadel demo, then collapsed onto the sofa for a few hours; she didn’t take the experience quite as well as I would have hoped.
For me, the Oculus Rift represents a truly new beginning for gaming – but of course it won’t ever be suited to all genres. If anything, the Oculus Rift is going to spawn a whole new genre of “experiential gaming”, where the focus is not on killing enemies or attaining points, but simply exploring a lush landscape or warping reality, or simulating the extraordinary. And I have no doubt it will rejuvenate a tired “adult” genre of gaming!
The Oculus Rift may not be perfect yet – but at leasts it’s something new in a world where the best Sony can come up with for the next generation PlayStation is “easy social sharing”. Immersion is the future – I’m sold on that – and right now I’m prepared to throw money at this thing.