Three years and a couple of development kits after the initial Kickstarter campaign, the Oculus Rift is finally on the verge of being released to everyday consumers – well, those with a beefy PC and a desire to be on the cutting edge of gaming tech.
In that span, the Rift headset has transformed from a pipe dream into the device that may finally realise the long-held promise of virtual reality.
Along the way, it has inspired countless competitors (everything from the HTC Vive to Google Cardboard) and become a prized possession of Facebook, which acquired the company in 2014 for US$2 billion.
But we're not talking about prototypes and promises anymore: the consumer version of the Oculus Rift is real, and we've played it.
Here's a primer on the device, along with what we thought of our latest dive into the virtual waters.
The Oculus Rift is a stereoscopic 3D headset that rests comfortably on your dome and connects to a rather capable Windows PC (see specs later on in this preview) to access games, apps, and other content and experiences.
The shape and components have evolved a fair bit since the original prototype, resulting in a consumer version that's markedly slicker looking and a lot more impressive than the early builds.
The consumer headset features two low-persistence OLED displays (one for each eye) running at 1080 x 1200, which are designed to minimise the kind of motion-sickness-inducing blur seen in the earlier versions. It also features built-in headphones, which deliver spatial audio, although you can swap in your own cans or earbuds as desired.
It's wired into your PC, which must also have the infrared tracking camera connected to it. That tracking device works with the "constellation" system of dots on the front of the headset to accurately track your position in the world.
Together, they make for much more precise experiences in which movements of your head correspond to actions in the game world.
One issue you could level at the Oculus Rift is that the headset connects to your computer via wires. Surely, a tangle-free wireless headset would be more ideal; after all, Microsoft's HoloLens isn't tethered to a box.
While it might be possible from a hardware perspective, going wireless would introduce latency issues - and lag makes virtual reality pretty much unusable. Plus, you're wearing a headset that completely obscures your vision: do you really need to be up and away from your PC? The Rift will remain wired for now, and quite likely for some time to come.
Wearing the rift
The consumer Rift has clearly been slaved over by industrial designers
Where the earlier Rift kits were more utilitarian in form, the consumer Rift has clearly been slaved over by industrial designers. It's smoothly shaped, not to mention lightweight and comfortable, and it shouldn't be a bother to wear for longer play sessions.
Granted, we only had about 15 minutes with the consumer version in a quick demo at E3, but it was a better experience than we'd had with prior models.
For starters, it'll fit over your glasses – just be careful with how you put it on to avoid jamming your specs against your eyeballs – plus it doesn't feel front-weighted thanks to the strap design. Once plugged in, we felt comfortable and no longer massively self-conscious about how silly we must've looked to any bystanders.
The view inside the Rift is crisp, but not entirely clear: there's still a bit of a screen-door effect obscuring the action, like a grid of tiny squares over the top of games. It's not terribly distracting, but it's definitely there.
We also still felt little hints of queasiness while playing, but we're going to assume those subside over time. Fingers crossed, at least. But by and large, we were very impressed by the illusion of being strapped into this world and interacting with amazing-looking games in a new way.
We had a go at two of the Rift's biggest early games: Edge Of Nowhere and EVE Valkyrie.
Edge Of Nowhere hails from Ratchet & Clank creator Insomniac Games, and it comes off like a less-brash Uncharted. Unlike a lot of VR experiences, it's a third-person game, with your gaze serving as the floating camera behind the character.
That's different, but still powerful and alluring. Clearly, a lot of work was put into using that perspective to perfectly frame each shot: when running across a crumbling bridge over an arctic canyon, for example, or walking into a pitch-black cave and lighting up a torch. But the best moment came when our explorer grabbed on to a rope and needed to climb down into a dark cave.
It never occurred to us, given our decades of experience with screen-based games, that there was anything below our virtual feet. But by god, there sure was: we gazed down and were simply stunned by how immersive the demo felt in that moment – particularly as creepy monsters began skittering up the walls. And later in the demo, eerie tentacles coming into view from behind provided a nice effect.
Insomniac totally nailed its attempt to show how third-person adventures can soar in VR, and we're excited to see how the studio builds a complete game around the premise – hopefully with a bit of its trademark personality, as well.
If that was impressive then EVE Valkyrie, which has been used as a Rift showcase for a couple years, was utterly mind-blowing on the consumer headset.
Spun off from the wild EVE Online universe, Valkyrie seems like a pretty standard space shooter in design – but viewed through a VR headset, the zippy space battles are utterly gripping. It's a perfect demo for the technology; doubters have to play it.
Other promising "big" games revealed for the consumer Rift include Chronos, an action role-player where each failed attempt to crack a dungeon means you start over a year older, wider, and stronger; plus there's Lucky's Tale, a Super Mario-style 3D game that looks fantastic.
A lot of the better-known traditional game makers seem to be treading carefully with VR, but there are loads of indie creators that have been making games with the dev kits for years. They'll be the ones producing the wealth of early releases, not to mention surely some of the most inventive offerings around.
You'll also be able to stream Xbox One and Xbox 360 games to a virtual (flat) TV within the Rift world, should you want to play within the confines of your headset. No, it's not the same as playing a game designed for the headset in stereoscopic 3D, but it is something else you can do with the hardware.
The company is also working on Oculus Touch, a pair of motion controllers
The Oculus Rift will ship with a standard Xbox One controller, which is what we used to play the games at E3. However, the company is also working on Oculus Touch, a pair of motion controllers that really show the possibilities of VR gaming.
Set to be released some time after the headset itself, the Touch controllers have their own trackers, along with an external ring that captures precise movements. They'll also recognise hand gestures, and if all that's not enough, they have traditional buttons and analog sticks, too.
Standing VR experiences will still be tricky (and dangerous), but Touch at least offers an option to do more than simply clutch a classic gamepad. It could well be the key to the next level of immersive play.
The consumer Rift only works with Windows PCs at launch
The consumer Rift only works with Windows PCs at launch, and Oculus has set default specifications that will remain intact "for the lifetime of the Rift," meaning developers will have to build experiences that support at least those minimum components (at least until the next Rift is released). Here's what you'll need:
- NVIDIA GTX 970 / AMD 290 equivalent or greater
- Intel i5-4590 equivalent or greater
- At least 8GB RAM - Windows 7 SP1 or newer
- 2x USB3.0 ports
- HDMI 1.3 video output supporting a 297MHz clock via direct output architecture
The last entry makes a lot of current laptops unusable, according to a detailed post from Oculus' chief architect, Atman Binstock. However, upcoming notebooks may be better optimised to use the Rift, which requires absolutely minimal latency to be a worthwhile experience.
The Oculus Rift will be released in Q1 of 2016
The Oculus Rift will be released in Q1 of 2016, and will arrive with the Xbox One controller and tracker camera.
No official price point has been set at the time of writing, however the total cost for the headset and a capable PC has been estimated at about US$1500 (around £950). Which means the headset itself will probably be US$300-400 (maybe £200-250+) itself, perhaps comparable to a current game console.
We came away very impressed by our consumer Rift demo, but we've also had strong HTC Vive and Project Morpheus experiences as well – there's a lot of competition coming in the market.
Regardless of the competition, Oculus looks guaranteed to make a big splash next year, assuming enough people are willing to invest in all the hardware needed to make this great leap into VR. We're already saving up.