A couple of days ago I got the chance to play with the HD Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, and I would have bought it then and there.
I couldn't believe how good it was - how accurately it recognised my movements, and how seamlessly it translated them into in-game actions. It's fortunate that I didn't buy it (to be honest buying it was never an option - it was kind of needed for the whole CES demo thing), because Oculus Rift has just got even better. The new version - aptly named Crystal Cove for the faceted structures that dot its chassis - takes VR to a new level.
There are a couple of changes in Crystal Cove. The first is 'Low Persistence', which all but eliminates judder and blur by switching its new 1080p OLED screen on and off at high speed. Compared with the Oculus HD Prototype I tried a couple of days back, it works extremely well (I could even read the tiny text on my spacecraft's control panel in EVE Valkyrie), and the OLED adds the super-saturated colours we're accustomed to from the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S4.
But the more fundamental change is the inclusion of some entirely new hardware that measures not only the orientation of your head, but how it's moving in 3D space. This hardware consists of an array of LEDs dotted over the chassis of the Rift headset and a modified USB webcam of unspecified resolution to track them, and the resulting experience is astonishingly immersive.
In a specially built 3D fantasy tower defence game from Epic, it was possible to get closer to the scenery and avatars I was trying to blast by leaning over in their direction. I could look up at the roof of my dungeon, and dive into the fiery pits below. It's proof that not just FPSs and simulators can benefit from VR.
With previous generations of the Rift, rotating or tilting your head had an instant corresponding change in what you are looking at: you are a disembodied head fixed in space. The Crystal Cove hardware adds another three degrees of freedom - it sees how you lean and tilt. This gives the attached computer more positional data to work with, which makes for entirely new gaming experiences.
You can turn your head almost a full 180 without it losing your position (there are no LEDs round back at present), and if it does lose you, the screen desaturates and the standard accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer kick in until the camera finds you again.
It's still early days
Oculus 3D's VP of Product Nate Mitchell was eager to point out that the sample I was trialling is very much a prototype: the design might change, the LED dots might disappear, the OLED panel and lenses might be replaced with different ones. Even the camera might be dispensed with.
Right now the Crystal Cove prototype works only with Windows PCs despite past Rift prototypes working with Linux and Mac OS. That's because of the current lack of Crystal Cover camera drivers, so these platforms will certainly be supported in future.
Because the interface is standard USB and HDMI, there's nothing stopping the next-gen consoles from supporting Rift, except for the tall-walled gardens in which they operate. Indeed, Mitchell is also getting excited about mobile: a high-power Android smartphone or tablet with HDMI and USB (and equipped with, say, Nvidia's K1 processor) could certainly support Rift, and even run the Unity engine-based EVE Valkyrie space shooter we tried out. As for SteamOS-running Steam Machines, Oculus support is up to Valve - but given the company's high-profile investment in VR, it must only be a matter of time. They'd be lunatics not to.
There are still issues to iron out. If I'm not mistaken the screen is a PenTile design, which gives a slight cross-hatching effect. It would be easily resolved with a higher-resolution panel, something that's on the cards for launch. I asked Mitchell about a wireless version, because cables are noticeable during play, but he pointed out that wireless HDMI connections introduced lag, battery packs added weight and the other additional hardware would increase price, which is still likely to be around US$300. Honestly, that's incredible value for a device this revolutionary.
So come on, guys - finish it already. 2014 needs to be the year of VR gaming.