When I walked in to try the new Oculus Rift prototype (Codenamed: Crescent Bay), I thought I had a pretty good idea what was in store for me. This is how it feels to be wrong. I left the demo weak-kneed, and impressed as hell.
What I saw is the future of Virtual Reality, and a powerful sign of things to come. The prototype, which boasts higher resolution, lower latency, and 3D audio, is not a new dev kit like the DK2. It’s a feature prototype intended to give developers and the press a chance to see where the technology is going.
Through a combination of luck and a habit of obsessively refreshing /r/oculus at all hours, I was able to get a chance to try the prototype in the very first available slot. The demos were about fifteen minutes long, and took place in little booths that Oculus built, which have a gray-on-gray modernist aesthetic reminiscent of Dr. Evil’s lair.
Oculus has shown the hardware before, but only to a limited audience at their Oculus Connect conference last year. This is the first opportunity the public has had to take a look at it. Many of the demos were similar to what was shown to developers at Oculus Connect, however, there were also some surprises in store — and it looked as though several of the demos had been polished or had quirks added. Oculus was kind enough to let me tape the process, and you can watch my demo here:
For more detailed impressions and a summary of each demo, read on!
I had a little bit of difficulty putting the Rift on over my (rather bulky) prescription glasses. The prototype was quite a bit more rigid (and, apparently, fragile) than the DK2, which made it much harder to maneuver onto your face if you’re wearing glasses. That’s fine for a prototype, but I hope that in the future Oculus includes a focus dial as it does with the Gear VR, for those of us who picked vision as our dump stat.
While I’m picking nits about the hardware, there was quite a bit of light leakage around the nose, which distracted me a couple of times during the demo. On the plus side, the headset is light: really light. It felt like it was hollow. Once it was on, it was the most comfortable VR headset I’ve ever worn.
One the hardware was on, I could get a good look at the screen. The optics were good, and the blur around the edges of the field of view (quite noticeable on the DK1 and DK2) were largely gone. The field of view felt about the same as the DK2; perhaps a little better. The resolution was definitely improved from the 1080p DK2, although not as much as I had hoped: it was still possible, with effort, to pick out individual pixels. I seriously doubt the resolution was more than 2560×1440 — the Note 4 screen used by the Gear VR is a good bet, although there’s still no official word from Oculus. The screen door effect is not quite a thing of the past. That said, the remaining level of pixelation is not distracting.
The integrated headphones really added a lot, especially in the sound-proofed booths that Oculus held the demos in. The headphones coming down effectively cut off my last line of grounding to the outside world, and I felt that I had been bodily transported. The demo took place on a large square mat (about one and a half meters on a side), which the attendant warned me to stay within. I didn’t, and the tracking held up perfectly. Thanks to the addition of tracking LEDs on the back of the headset, I could turn freely without losing tracking. During the entire demo, there was not one positional tracking failure, and not a single dropped frame.
Oculus insists that the Rift is a seated experience: probably for legal and safety reasons. I had to sign a waiver to take the demo that I did. However, the added immersion of being able to stand and move freely is hard to overstate. Using the Rift standing up with a wide positional tracking volume is a fundamentally different experience than sitting in a chair and being able to shift at most a few feet from side to side.
The quality of the demos themselves were also top-notch. There are a lot of good Oculus Rift gaming experiences, but these were far and away the best I’ve ever tried.
Maybe what popped out to me the most about the new prototype was the accuracy and low latency. The DK2’s tracking works, but there’s a… deliberateness to it. You find yourself moving a little bit more intentionally than you normally do, because the latency introduces a subconscious disconnect between the motions of your head and the motions of the world. In the Crescent Bay prototype, that’s largely gone. You move, and the world is absolutely stable — a ground truth that you can depend upon. Your head motions are fluid, effortless, and thoughtless. It’s difficult to convey, but the sense that you’re surrounded by real things and standing in real places is overwhelming. The subconscious disconnect is gone, or close to it.
I’m not especially prone to simulation sickness, but there is a mild unease that I start to notice after using the DK2 for a while. In Crescent Bay, that was entirely gone. I left the demo feeling great.
The first demo took place aboard a submarine. The ceiling was high enough that it wasn’t claustrophobic, but there was a strong sense of tight spaces. A huge pipe hung down in front of me. The lighting on everything looked great, and I suspect was image-based. After a few moments, there was an ominous grinding noise coming from all around me, letting me hear the shape of the room I was in. Then, slowly, the room began to crumble slightly under the pressure from above. Then it cut to black.
In the next demo, I found myself face to face with a dinosaur, about six feet tall. His body was lit beautifully as he breathed slowly and peered at me. We stood together in a black void, blurry particles hanging limply in the air around us. My face was inches from a mouthful of beautifully sculpted yellow teeth. I didn’t quite feel the visceral fear I would feel if I were face to face with a real predator, like a tiger or a bear, but there was something profoundly unsettling about it.
The next demo was a delightfully low-poly scene, with a small deer, a rabbit, and a fox, rendered in a handful of polygons and cheery pastels. A tree hung over my shoulder, and I felt that I could reach out and touch it. Very little happened, but it was a pleasant place to be. I’d quite like to go back there.
The next demo was one that I’d read about before. I stood at the edge of an enormous skyscraper, looking down at a gothic, steampunk-looking city. An enormous Zeppelin floated overhead. Behind me, I could see a huge billboard of Palmer Lucky, wearing a Rift dev kit. Below me, cars moved.
I’ve never liked heights, and when I tried to make myself step off the edge of the building, I found that I really couldn’t.
The Magic Mirror
The next demo took place in room that looked like it was taken right out of Bioshock — a cartoonish, vaguely nightmarish sitting room with a large mirror against one wall. Bored-looking Cherubim framed the glass and looked at me dourly. In the mirror, I could see my reflection as a disembodied head, which rapidly cycled through a variety of models, including a broken piece of a marble bust (I think Socrates), an opera mask, a terra-cotta sun with a face in it, a balloon, and a small purple box with a knocker for a nose. The nose jiggled when I moved my face, which is both simple and fiercely entertaining.
The next demo took place on a large, frozen asteroid, with a tight horizon and a strangely colored sky. Ships flew overhead, and I could hear the Doppler effect as they moved, leaving vapor trails in the sky. Across from me, just close enough to make me a little nervous, a grey alien with large eyes and complicated fingers looked back at me. His eyes followed me, and when I moved, he turned to follow. After a moment, he waved. I returned the wave entirely automatically.
The sense of being in the same space as another person who is reacting to you is incredibly powerful. I wish I’d been able to spend longer and see how long it takes for the illusion to break down.
The next demo was by far my favorite. I stood in a void, with a sheet of thick fog going through my chest (which is uncomfortable, by the way — developers take note). In front of me was a tiny toy city, a few feet across, which looked almost exactly as though it was made of paper. I could see a tiny paper fire raging in a building, and tiny paper fire fighters struggling to put it out. Paper clouds drifted over the city. I could look into a paper window, and see a little paper person drifting in his room. I wish I’d had more time on this one, because the entire thing was packed with detail, and I suspect I could have spent an hour exploring it.
There’s clearly a whole game you could make that’s exactly this: tiny, VR, Sim City, and if nobody else makes it, I will.
The Robot Arms
The next demo took the form of an almost Pixar-ish short. The skit starred two enormous orange industrial robots, a conductor’s stand, and a rubber duck. The demo began when the duck rose on a small podium from the ground and the arms began bickering over it, swinging widely through my personal space and causing me to jump and duck instinctively. After one of them chucked the duck off into the distance, a conductor’s stand rose from the ground, and one of them picked up the baton, and began conducting an invisible orchestra.
After a moment, a twist: the baton is actually a magic wand. A moment later, and they are dueling, red and blue sparks (rendered gorgeously in 3d) exploding all around me. Finally, one of the arms transformed itself into an enormous ten-foot-tall yellow duck, and the other embraced it.
This demo was really fun, and is a great proof of concept for VR fiction. The action took place all around me, and I never once had any trouble following what was happening.
The Dinosaur Museum
In the next demo, I found myself in an enormous museum hall, with a dinosaur’s skull sitting on a podium off to one side. After a few seconds, a tyrannosaur rounded the corner and charged at me. This time, it wasn’t just unsettling, I was plain old scared. I had to keep reminding myself that what I was seeing wasn’t real. The dinosaur passed over me, and I ducked impulsively to avoid his body.
The last demo I played has been shown to the public before, and was built using the Unreal 4 engine, a point that the demo itself made sure to emphasize.
I ran down a street in slow motion, while an enormous gun fight took place around me. Bullets, trailing liquid streams of distortion, flew over my shoulder. At the end of the street, a colossal robot stared me down. Gloriously rendered glass shards and chunks of concrete passed through the air around me. I felt like I could reach out, like Neo, in the matrix, and pluck them from the air. Part way down the street, an explosion picked a car up, and sent it sailing inches over my head. I could see the man, curled into the fetal position in the back seat through the window. When I reached the end of the road, the enormous robot reared up, sparks crawling down its body, and roared.
The Future Of VR
The takeaway from Crescent Bay is that it’s the subtleties of VR that really make a difference. The extra few milliseconds of latency and the extra few degrees of positional tracking that Oculus added in the new prototype matters way more than the boost in resolution. The audio was likewise a subtlety, but helped to ground me in the virtual world. Within a few seconds of getting the headset properly adjusted, I had lost any and all sense of my position in the real world, and was convinced I was somewhere else.
The effect was incomparable, and indescribable. I’ve seen the future, and very soon you will be a part of the virtual reality experience too.
Are you excited for the future of VR? What’s your most-desired feature? Let us know in the comments!