Virtual Reality is not new, but it’s finally affordable and within our grasp. 4 years ago and after many prototypes, VR enthusiast Palmer Luckey announced on the MTBS3D forums that he was going to make a VR headset kit available through the relatively new Kickstarter crowdfunding platform, and soon found ten thousand of us throwing money at him for an Oculus Rift Development Kit 1. It was a glorious moment, and 2 years later his fledgling company was acquired by Facebook for a cool $2 billion. Which brings us promptly to today: the final consumer edition of the Oculus Rift.
If you haven’t already, I also suggest you read our HTC Vive review, the only current competitor, developed in partnership with Valve.
And for those reading this a year after its initial release, we’ve produced a “one year later: Oculus Rift vs HTC Vive” video. Enjoy!
What’s In The Box?
The Oculus Rift by itself costs $500 plus shipping and local taxes.
Inside the magnetically sealed box, which has a strong fabric handle so you can carry it around easily, you’ll find:
- The headset itself, with a 13ft cable
- Infra-red “Constellation” tracking camera
- Oculus Remote
- Microsoft Xbox One wireless gaming controller and USB receiver
The headset has a single combined cable, which carries both the HDMI and USB signal; this requires one USB3 port on the PC end (and HDMI). The tracking camera requires an additional USB3 port, and the wireless receiver is happy with USB2. No additional power is required, as it draws all the required power from the USB3 port. At a later date, when the Touch motion controller are released with an additional tracking camera, you’ll need yet another USB3 port – so you may need to buy an additional PCI-E interface card.
The tracking camera should be placed at desk height, and then a short installation routine will ask you to angle the camera, and stand as it calibrates. Unfortunately, this is where I hit some frustrating problems. I’ve already established my living room as a VR play area, so I don’t have a desk to place the camera on, opting to use a floor standing speaker instead (about half desk height). No matter how I angled the camera or where I stood, it refused to proceed, telling me the camera was tilted wrongly. I tried on a roughly desk height shelf too, with no luck, and in the end just bodged it by making it think I was standing when I was actually sitting. I now need to reset the view everytime I play, which isn’t a huge issue, but I thought it worth noting how inflexible the Constellation tracking system seems to be at the moment. I had no such issue when setting up the Vive, pointing them straight forward (instead of angled), or at different heights.
Despite being a Microsoft product, the wireless Xbox receiver refused to work out of the box, claiming that drivers were not loaded, nor could any be found through the usual “search for drivers online” process. I had to manually run a Windows Update in order to find a special patch containing the drivers. This is on a Windows 10 machine with regular updates enabled, which leads me to believe the wireless receiver is non-standard, perhaps having been sourced through a third party (and might therefore be responsible for the component shortage that’s plagued the Rift’s launch).
Design and Comfort
The Rift headset is a marvel of engineering, with a sleek black fabric covering the screen enclosure, and spring loaded head strap that makes putting on the headset really easy. The strap is rubber, with a solid triangle at the back which cups the base of your skull, and also houses a number of tracking LEDs which should maintain tracking when you turn fully around.
This shifts some of the weight away from your face. It’s already lightweight, but with the solid rubber triangle at the back cupping the base of your skull and correctly adjusted, you shouldn’t feel any significant weight pushing down on your nose or eyes.
The strap is also spring-loaded where it meets the screen enclosure, enabling you to quickly pull the screen forward and not get caught up when putting on and taking it off. There’s also a small degree of tilt for the screen, independent of the strap, so quickly adjusting to find the “sweet spot” is a breeze.
A single, lightweight cable exits the headset on the left side, and tends to drop down your chest. For seated experiences, I rarely noticed the cable, but it’s difficult to tell how comfortable this would be for standing experiences where you need to move around more, since there aren’t any games like that at the moment.
One unexpected highlight of the Oculus Rift is the integrated headphones. These can also be repositioned to perfectly match your ear thanks to a clever mechanism, but moreover, they just sound great. It’s easy to dismiss these as a minor feature, but it really shouldn’t be underestimated how important these are – having wrestled with my own pair of headphones on the Vive, and the complications that it and another cable adds to the equation, having great quality integrated headphones contributes to the Oculus Rift being the superior design.
A good quality integrated microphone finishes up the offering, though there isn’t much to do with it at the moment due to lack of social features.
As with the development kits before it, those who are long sighted need not wear glasses in the Rift. However, while previous dev kits included additional lenses for anyone short-sighted, the final consumer Rift does not. Instead, you must wear glasses, and they mustn’t be too big.
To use glasses with your Rift headset, they must fit within the following specifications: A frame width of 142mm or less, A frame height of 50mm or less
I had no problems with my small frames, though my wife’s had a tendency to get stuck in the headset when she was taking them off, and hers are also relatively small. Medium to large framed glasses-wearers will have problems, and may find the frames pinching at their temples during use.
It’s also worth noting that the facial interface – the foam that sits between the screen enclosure and the user – is quite thin and therefore doesn’t conform as much to different face shapes. For me, this meant a large gap around my nose where light could leak in. It’s quite distracting on a sunny day, but you may appreciate being able to quickly glance down at your keyboard or mouse.
The increased resolution from the DK2 and custom designed fresnel lenses results in stunning quality of visuals. There are lens flares from bright objects, and these can sometimes appear like smudges, but for the most part, they either look like an intended effect or aren’t significant enough to detract from the experience.
There’s a large sweet spot in the middle, with clarity and sharpness maintained throughout except in the extremities. The screen door effect is present, though less so than previous iterations, and the layout of the sub-pixels mean it’s not as obvious as a square grid. It was noticeable during dark loading screens and menus, and the blacks tends to be washed out.
If you think I’ve glossed over these issues, it’s because they simply don’t matter. Enthusiasts have a tendency to agonize about these visual flaws and love to draw diagrams explaining why one lens design is superior to another, but the truth is that they are easily forgotten once you’re immersed in a game, regardless of which headset you choose.
An Xbox One wireless controller and adaptor is included; there’s no Oculus branding or special markings on this, it’s just regular Xbox controller which you can throw on eBay if you don’t need it (you might want to be quick though, I’m sure there’ll be a glut of these things in the coming months).
Also included is a small Oculus branded remote; it looks and feels like a cheap Apple remote, with a couple of buttons, and a clicky touchpad at the top. It isn’t tracked though, nor does it have any motion sensing capabilities – it’s just designed to be a simple remote for browsing the store or consuming content.
I used it once, to adjust the volume, then promptly forgot about it.
Software, and Launch Games
After running through setup, you’ll be launched into DreamDeck, a series of short scenes, such as standing atop a skyscraper, in a museum where a dinosaur runs wild, or meeting an alien. As someone with previous VR experience, I found it to be quite underwhelming, but for first time users I can see the appeal.
Thanks to an occupancy sensor within the headset, the Oculus Home environment automatically turns on when you put on the headset, and any games are automatically paused and the screen blanked out when you take it off. Oculus Home is a pleasing enough experience, but as yet lacks any customization and really serves just as a storefront and VR shortcut to launch games. It feels unfinished in places, and frustrating in others.
Though there is a friends list, you can’t do anything with your friends. Updates aren’t automatically installed, so I spent a while trying to figure out where I should navigate to find apps with updates available, then having to manually tell them to download. The store contains static images for screenshots (unlike the first thing you can click in Steam VR store pages, which opens a theatre mode video of the game), though more immersive previews were promised. Then there’s the tragic “C: drive bug” – you better hope you have a lot of free space, because everything installs to C: and you can’t change that. I’m not kidding – this is lazy programming at its finest.
In time, we’ll obviously see more social features – a voice chat interface, maybe even the ability to watch your friends play or view YouTube videos in a shared environment – but right now, those just aren’t there. Software issues are easily fixed though and will improve with time. Launching an entirely new gaming platform isn’t easy. The initial release of the Steam client was essentially just a patching system for first party games.
There is one major issue worth noting for international customers as well: at the time of writing, you’ll be charged in $USD, and you cannot use PayPal. In the UK, most banks will add a processing fee on top of this, in some cases as high as a few pounds per transaction. Check with your specific card and bank – I have a Halifax Rewards credit card just for purchases in dollars, precisely because there’s no fee.
Pre-orders include a copy of Eve:Valkyrie, a space dogfighting game (normally $50). It’s here that I’ve spent 90% of my time, but my initial reaction was that of nausea (and that’s having spent the previous week fully immersed in the Vive launch titles). It takes a while to get your VR legs when floating around space, and my wife refuses to touch this one again because of that initial sickness. The gameplay itself is fast paced, and the addition of a virtual body really helps with immersion, but progression is slow. 5 hours in and I’m still flying the same spaceship, since I refuse to participate in any in-app purchases. That said, I’m clearly enjoying it, having now ordered a bass shaker for my chair and a X52 HOTAS. I haven’t tried Elite Dangerous yet, but it’s next on my list.
Lucky’s Tale is a playful platformer, and if you enjoy platformers, you’ll appreciate the added dimension. My wife’s thoughts after an hour: “I’ve had enough now. It’s just Mario”. Unlike other VR experiences I’ve tried, Lucky’s Tale simply adds very little by virtue of being placed in VR. It would work just as well on a 2D monitor.
Farlands is another free launch title. It’s an experimental alien exploration “game”. I forced my wife to play it for an hour or so, and she begrudgingly complied. There were no exclamations of joy, or squeals of surprise, just sighs of frustration as she couldn’t figure out what to do next or why the cute little aliens were so unhappy.
I didn’t splash $50 on Chronos, because I refuse to play any more games with a fixed camera, and at this point, I’m not sure I want to invest any more money in Oculus Home until it improves.
The Seated Experience
All of the games I’ve tried in the Rift exhibit a sense of presence, but there’s just no wow factor. I’m not blown away by any of them. Although the Oculus Rift is an incredibly well designed and technically capable VR headset, the lack of motion controls is bitterly disappointing. The inclusion of an Xbox controller will appeal to regular gamers, but just makes the system inaccessible to new users who aren’t so comfortable with the traditional analogue stick control schemes. A gamepad just isn’t a natural or intuitive way to interact with VR, and it stops me from being able to demo Oculus Rift to my non-gamer friends. New pre-orders for the Rift are backed up for months anyway, and the Touch controllers will be here within 6 months – but right now, at launch, the line-up is just underwhelming.
We can only speculate as to why the decision was made to bundle in an Xbox controller and not wait for the Touch controllers to be ready; it may have been a simple case of wanting to launch anyway given the competition, or it may have been a conscious decision of “let’s make the controllers optional, play it safe with a controller for now to avoid VR sickness”. Considering that Palmer Luckey himself deplored the use of a regular controller, the decision was likely a business one.
The Rift is better suited to cockpit games – racing, flight and space sims – no doubt about it. The visual quality is stunning, and it’s simply the best way of playing these genres right now. If these are your thing, I have no trouble recommending the Oculus Rift as the best VR headset for you. Strap in, grab your racing wheel or HOTAS, and be prepared the most realistic simulation experience you’ve ever had.
For everyone else, you should wait or look elsewhere. Oculus Home is yet another storefront, and not a particularly good one at the moment. Once the Touch controllers are here, we’ll be able to better judge how they enable natural interactions and the sort of gaming experiences they bring, but right now, the launch games just aren’t that compelling with an Xbox controller.
If you’re on the fence about which headset to buy, I’ll be writing up a more direct comparison between the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive soon. I will say this though: I’m keeping both.
Stunning visuals and ergonomic design make the Oculus Rift an easy winner for some types of games, but the lack of tracked controllers leaves us with a disappointing launch line-up.