Four 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: Rift is now ready for mass consumption, and we've just had our last pre-release play of the launch line-up of games.
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
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.
That being said, you do still need to wear it fairly tightly, and during a couple of lengthier sessions your cheeks can get a little sweaty. Little indentations remain on your face for a few minutes afterwards, too. Let's call that Rift Face.
Those aren't big issues, though, and the Rift is a nicely designed device. You pull it on like a baseball cap, stretching the rubber straps, and while on the first occasion you'll have to tighten or loosen those straps for the right fit, in the future you'll be able to just pull the headset on.
It fits over your glasses, too – 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, you feel very comfortable and almost immediately forget how silly you look.
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. Most of the time, though, you entirely forget that as you're drawn hook, line and sinker into the virtual world.
There's no denying that VR can cause motion sickness, though. It depends hugely on how susceptible you are and on the game's design, but Oculus has introduced a rating system that gives each game a comfort level from 'comfortable' to 'moderate' to 'intense'. It takes a lot to make me feel queasy, but a couple of demos I've done have triggered that unpleasant feeling. Those games were both early in development, though, and I suspect will be tweaked before launch. I also think it will be possible to get used to VR's particular sensations.
The latest (and last pre-release) event allowed us to get hands-on with a huge number of games, and you can click here to see which are our 10 favourites, but it's worth mentioning again a couple of our standout favourites: Edge Of Nowhere and EVE Valkyrie.
Edge Of Nowhere hails from Ratchet & Clank creator Insomniac Games, and it's a decidedly creepy adventure game that's heavily inspired by the writing of HP Lovecraft. Unlike a lot of VR experiences, it's a third-person game, with your gaze serving as the floating camera behind the character.
That initially sounds like a wasted VR opportunity, but in play is actually very 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 me, given decades of experience with screen-based games, that there was anything below my virtual feet. But by god, there sure was: I gazed down and was 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.
The way the game mixes huge, expansive outdoor areas with claustrophobic, headlamp-lit caverns crawling with beasties makes the game a visual treat that makes far better use of VR than you might imagine.
And then there's EVE Valkyrie, which has been used as a Rift showcase for a couple years and has now blossomed into what appears to be a very substantial space combat game.
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.
It's telling that these two early flagship titles are from relatively indie developers. A lot of the better-known traditional game makers (EA, Activision, etc) 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 Oculus Rift is bundled with a standard Xbox One controller at launch, but 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.
The Touch controllers are vital to certain games, such as the awesome Dead & Buried, which has you physically ducking behind cover and shooting enemies across a Wild West saloon, and will heighten some games that will also work with the Xbox controller, such as The Climb, which involves reaching and gripping handholds as you scale cliffs.
It makes for terrific experiences, but as with HTC's Vive, there's a question over the practicality of standing and physically moving around a room while wearing a headset. It's a whole new area for gaming, and it's going to be really interesting to see how people take to that aspect of VR gaming when it's out in the wild. It'll be HTC that takes the plunge first, though, as there's still no date for the Oculus Touch controllers.
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.
If you don't already have a PC and are looking at buying one for Oculus, you might want to consider an official Oculus Ready PC.
Release date and price
The first Oculus Rift deliveries are taking place on 28 March but if you haven't ordered one yet, you're in for a long wait. At the time of writing the next available deliveries are in July.
The £500 price (About ₹48,000 plus shipping to India) gets you the headset, Xbox One controller, a smaller, TV-style remote, and the tracker camera. That's a good chunk cheaper than the HTC Vive, but remember that Vive comes with motion controllers, whereas Oculus owners will need to fork out for those at a later date.
Either way, factor in the cost of a VR-ready PC (you're looking at around ₹1 lac and up), and there's no denying that VR is an expensive hobby in these early days.
Sony is doing things a bit cheaper with its PlayStation VR headset, which will launch in October for about ₹35,000, and given how many PlayStation 4s are already out there, that could be a winning combination, even though it's not quite as powerful or capable as the Oculus or Vive.
Time will tell, of course, and we'll have our full reviews of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive up very soon. Stay tuned!