Heads-on with the Oculus Rift immersive VR headset at CES

Immersive virtual reality has been promised to us for years, and for years, we've been horribly disappointed at what's been available. It takes a lot of sophistication to fool your brain into thinking that it's inside a virtual world, but somehow, the Oculus Rift has managed to make it work. And it's utterly spectacular.

Let me just start off by saying that the Oculus Rift is seriously incredible. Seriously. I went in skeptical, and came out not just sold, but regretting that I hadn't already given them my money to get my hands on a developer kit. Having said that, as impressive as the Oculus Rift is, it's important to know what to expect: namely, not the impossible, especially for a system that's trying to be affordable for even casual gamers.

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Here's the skinny on the Oculus Rift: it's a headset that covers your eyes with a 720p screen. There are two lenses in front of your eyes, and the screen shows a left and right stereo image that the lenses pipe through to your eyeballs, creating an immersive 3D virtual reality experience. Also inside the headset are high resolution sensors that track the motion of your head and shift your in-world view to match. It takes just two milliseconds for the sensors to tell the displays to update as your head moves, which means that the effect is convincingly real: as you physically move your head in any axis, the gameworld follows just as if you were there in real life.

The headset goes on like a pair of ski goggles: there's just one headband that fits around the back of your head. I was pleasantly surprised by the weight of the Oculus in that it didn't become an unpleasant distraction — at least not during the five minutes that I was allowed to try it out. It's entirely possible that after minute six it turns horribly uncomfortable somehow, but I'm optimistic that it'll be wearable for at least an hour or two at a stretch. It is right up against your eyeballs, though: when you blink, your eyelashes may hit the lenses. I don't wear glasses, but my demo was with someone who did, and while it worked fine for her, I got the sense that it was perhaps not ideal.

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Arguably the most important thing about the Oculus Rift is that the displays take up your entire field of view. All of it. You put the headset on, and the only thing you can see is the world that it's showing you. The effect of this is immediate and dramatic, because it fools your brain into thinking that you're somewhere else. Really. It's amazing. You can glance left and right and see more things just like you can in real life. You can also turn all the way around behind you, which is utterly bizarre, because we're so used to interacting with computers in front of us. Like, you could sort of pretend that Oculus is really just a giant 3D screen — until you look behind you and you're still in game.

I found that the most unnerving bit was that I expected to see myself when I looked down. The demo (a passive level from Infinity Blade) featured gently falling (and very stereoscopic) snow in a medieval village, and it was vaguely surprising to hold out my hand (in real life) and then not see it there in the virtual world. It was equally surprising to hold out my hand and hit a computer monitor which my eyes were 100% certain was not there. It was like, "why is there an invisible computer monitor in front of me?" I asked Oculus about perhaps integrating something like Kinect into the system to model your body, so that if you stick your hand out in real life, your character in game will, too. The problem with doing that, it turns out, comes (again) back to latency: Kinect is simply not fast enough to keep up with Oculus (and your brain), and the disjoint between the two systems would disrupt the VR effect.

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From what I could tell, the most important aspect of a VR headset isn't so much the resolution of the display: it's the latency between your head movements and what the display shows. If you move your head and you have to wait for the display to catch up, it breaks the immersion. The Oculus Rift isn't perfect at this, but it's pretty good: the demo unit that we took for a spin had a latency of 60-80 milliseconds, of which the displays themselves are responsible for 30ms due to the time that it takes for all of the pixels to switch at the refresh rate of 60 hz. The dev kit should ship with better displays that refresh in just 15 ms, and the overall experience in the consumer version should be better still.

Motion blur was not insignificant on display that I tried out, but it's directly proportional to how fast you're moving your head around. Whipping my head back and forth (just to see what happened) turned everything into a blur as the displays almost entirely failed to keep up with the instructions from the Rift's sensors, suggesting that a first person shooter might not be the absolute best game to use the Rift with. Moving my head at what I'd describe as a slow to normal rate, however, nearly eliminated the motion blur, and it instantly became much easier to lose myself in the virtual world.

I'd always figured that the Oculus Rift would be the most fun in games like Doom (which it will be shipping with), but after this demo, I'm not so sure: I think the very best games to experience on this thing will be graphic adventures like Myst, where the intention is for you to become lost in beautiful immersive environments.

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As far as how Oculus will integrate with games, developers will have to program in dedicated Oculus support. There's no software middleman, so it's not like your computer is taking input from the Oculus sensors and translating it into mouse inputs. This is partially why the dev kits are going out: so far, Oculus is only officially integrated with Doom 3 BFG Edition and Hawken, and the catalog needs to get built up a bit before a consumer release.

Oculus emphasized that the prototype developer version that I tried out, which is what six or seven thousand people decided to pick up during the Kickstarter campaign is not really intended for consumers. It's going to be a prototype kit, a sort of beta version, with what is likely to be noticeably inferior performance to the consumer version which will be available later on. Aside from a March ship date for the dev kits, there's currently no other (public) timeline on releases or availability or pricing (although the dev kit was a scant $300 on Kickstarter), but Oculus has promised us a review unit as soon as they have them available. Well, okay, they didn't really, but I figure maybe if I publish that they did like this, they'll have no choice but to somehow make it happen.

Via Oculus

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