Despite valiant – if misguided – efforts from the likes of the Virtual Boy and VFX1 during the 1990s, virtual reality has never succeeded in cracking the mainstream. But we’d bet our mortgage on that changing with the Oculus Rift, a headset that manages to hit all the sweet spots: it’s affordable, comfortable and delivers an incredibly immersive experience, even with existing games.
With the Kickstarter-funded Oculus Rift still in the prototype stage and a consumer version not due in shops until late 2014 at the earliest, there’s much about the headset that is still yet to be confirmed – but there’s also much we do know and much we can take an educated guess at.
Oculus Rift developer edition
Oculus Rift in use
The Oculus Rift developer version features a 16:10 ratio 7in screen with a resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels. This screen is divided into two parts (one for the left eye and one for the right), meaning each eye sees a separate 640 x 800 image. Thus, the wearer sees a 3D image.
It keeps tabs on your head orientation through a combination of 3-axis gyroscopes, accelerometers and magnetometers, allowing it to track you through 360 degrees without any drift.
Dials on each side of the headset can be used to adjust the distance between between the displays and the wearer’s eyes, and there are interchangeable lenses included that allow some measure of dioptric correction (for people who are either short- or long-sighted).
It weighs 369g, which Oculus claims is equivalent to “a heavy pair of ski goggles”. There’s also a separate control box which connects to the headset via a cable, and into which you plug your source device via HDMI or DVI, plus USB for the transfer of tracking info.
The consumer version of Oculus Rift is expected to be somewhat different. While the company has yet to confirm its specifications, it’s likely to take most of its cues from the Crystal Cove prototype we had a chance to use at CES back in January.
Crystal Cove has a 1920 x 1080 OLED screen that not only boasts more pixels but also faster pixels: they can turn off and on more rapidly, which all but eliminates lag and blur (and therefore reduces the potential for motion sickness). It also offers far more advanced tracking that is aware of your head’s position in 3D space and not just its orientation. That means you can duck, lean and tilt. Crystal Cove is a marked step up from the developer kit version, in other words – and we expect the consumer Oculus Rift to be similarly superior.
One issue you could level at Oculus Rift is that the headset connects to your computer or console via wires. Surely, in this day and age, a tangle-free wireless headset is the way to go? Well, while it’s totally possible thanks to wireless HDMI connectivity and batteries, both of these things would push up the device’s price (as well as introduce possible problems with batteries running down and wireless signals dropping). Oculus is likely to stick with cables for now.
Oculus Rift Crystal Cove prototype
At CES back in January we had the opportunity to try both an HD prototype of Oculus Rift and the even more advanced Crystal Cove version of the headset – and it’s no exaggeration to say that both blew us away.
You can read our detailed thoughts on both below, but the headset manages to be comfortable to wear despite its bulk and delivers an experience quite unlike any VR headset we’ve seen. The level of immersion is incredible – in EVE Valkyrie, for instance, you can look around your spaceship’s cockpit with Rift while piloting it with the regular controller. The potential for any first-person view game is obvious, it'll draw you into these worlds like never before.
The main issue that can arise is motion sickness – particularly when the screen's view moves when your head doesn't and vice versa – but Oculus is working to fix that by adding positional head-tracking and faster-refreshing screens.
You can see a full list of upcoming and existing games with Oculus Rift support here. Most are for Windows PCs and a handful are also available on Mac and Linux, but the headset’s HDMI and USB connections mean it’s theoretically compatible with consoles such as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, as well as Android devices.
Even games that haven’t been designed with Oculus Rift in mind (or later patched to support it) can sometimes be played using the headset, thanks to a new wave of specialist drivers including VorpX, Vireio Perception 2.0 and TriDef Ignition, all of which can give standard Direct X games a 3D makeover.
Oculus Rift rugby
Being a virtual reality 3D headset, there are many potential uses for Oculus Rift beyond gaming. To give some recent examples, there’s the University of Surrey’s Virtual Ride to Space, O2 putting you in the jockstrap of an England rugby player during a training session, and HBO allowing you to take a virtual ride up the 700-foot ice wall from Game Of Thrones.
Thanks to the presence of a software development kit, it’s a fairly straightforward process to program for Oculus Rift and use the technology to educate or entertain. Expect to see it put to use at museums, exhibitions and inside shopping centres very soon.
Price and release date
Oculus Rift HD prototype
Oculus VR has yet to confirm a release date for the consumer version of Rift, but it seems a safe bet that it'll arrive in either late 2014 or early 2015.
Update 16/03/15: Or maybe not. Speaking at a SXSW 2015 panel (as reported by Re/code) Oculus founder Palmer Luckey seemed to suggest that the headset might not be released this year at all. Luckey had previously stated that something would have to "go horribly wrong" for the Rift not to arrive in 2015, but appeared to backpedal: "I did say that, before we made a lot of changes to our roadmap... I can't comment on the date one way or the other, but I can say nothing is going horribly wrong." Luckey's original statement came before Oculus VR's acquisition by Facebook, so it could be that the deal has resulted in the release date being pushed back. All the way back to 2016? We hope not, but it's not outside the realms of possibility.
As far as pricing goes, the best guide we have is that the developer version sells for US$300 (S$420). But given the consumer edition is likely to be more powerful and better equipped, it may cost more. Don't expect it to break the bank though - Oculus founder Palmer Luckey has suggested that the consumer version will be affordable to most gamers.
“You can’t sell an expensive piece of hardware and expect tons of content to show up," he said. "We’re not doing market research around what’s the breaking point for people to buy a VR headset; we’re just trying to sell it as cheap as we can while still existing as a company.”Of course Oculus VR isn't the only company interested in virtual reality: Sony is expected to unveil its own VR headset at GDC this week, while Valve, the company behind Steam, also has its own prototype. But having tried Oculus Rift ourselves, it's still the one we're most excited about right now.