The much awaited Oculus Rift virtual reality headset from Facebook is now available for purchase. With a score of 9/10, its a solid new technology that has an exciting future ahead.
March 28, 2016
Written by: Peter Rubin
The famous face-computer finally begins shipping this week. Will it change everything?
ITS HARD TO imagine a phrase more loaded than “the Oculus Rift is here.” While people have been talking and writing about the virtual-reality headset since 2012, it’s always qualified with words like “developer kit” or “prototype” or “pre-release version.” Well, forget qualification: Nearly four years after it made people finally start believing in VR, the Oculus Rift is showing up at people’s houses starting today.
This makes it the first high-end consumer VR system to come to market. It’ll soon be joined by others—the HTC Vive begins shipping next month, and Sony’s Playstation VR arrives this fall—but it’s the Rift that’s leading the charge into superpowered, PC-driven immersion. That means that smartphone substitutes like Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR, despite being fine for what they can do, and in some cases even great, are now virtual reality’s JV team.
We’ve been teased before, of course. Whether we believed the VR hype in the ’90s or just expected the Rift to come out years ago, over time we internalized an it’s-ready-when-it’s-ready forgiveness that bordered on Stockholm Syndrome. Gotta be patient, we said. They still need to solve Problem X or Issue Y. So taking the Rift out of its Apple-like packaging—like a real product!—feels almost like a trap. There’s the headset (real!), a small IR sensor (real!), an even smaller remote control (sure, real), and an Xbox gamepad (fine, whatever, real). What there’s not is a user manual. Instead, the inside of the box just lists a simple URL; you go there, download the installer, and you’re off to the races.
Maybe “races” is optimistic; keep in mind that the Rift isn’t a self-contained device, it’s a peripheral—and it won’t work with just any computer. You need a Windows PC, and you’d better hope that it’s packing heat. (If not, there are a number of “Oculus Ready”-certified computers you can buy, or even bundles that let you snag a Rift, and a rig to run it on, at a slight discount.) Once you’ve download the installer, updated your graphics card driver, and run through the full calibration setup, it could be 30 minutes or more before you get any actual VR. That being said, it’s a remarkably glitch-free process; everything you’re prompted to do is clearly explained, and the Oculus Ready PC I used was more than up to the task.
Feed Your Head
The headset itself, as we detailed recently, is designed to be as comfortable as possible, and it succeeds. While it’s heavier than rumored—repeated weighings on my kitchen scale average out to 495 grams, or just over 17 ounces—the weight is distributed well and feels much, much lighter than that. There are no pain points, even after long sessions (which I found to be a problem with the Gear VR, particularly on the bridge of my nose). You put it on and adjust the side and top Velcro for a comfortable fit, and then… well, that’s it. The sides are spring-loaded, so once you have the fit right you can take it off and put it on without any further adjustment. Just don’t make it too tight, or after more than about 15 minutes you’ll end up with “VR face,” a nicely shaped indentation matching the contours of the thing.
Inside it, what you wind up looking at is two custom AMOLED displays screens running at a combined resolution of nearly 2.5K, presenting images to you as stereoscopic 3D. It’s not like you don’t know you’re looking at a screen (we’re a number of years away from whatever insane resolution that will entail), but it delivers what it needs to without breaking the possibility of presence—that moment when your brain reacts to VR as though you were really there. The integrated on-ear headphones might not look like much, but they deliver shockingly good sound. In fact, that sound is a big ingredient of the immersion: the spatialized 3-D audio both distance and direction are accurately reflected, which means that sound can be more exhilarating—or terrifying—than you’d thought. The headphones are removable, though I’d suggest using them for a while before you make the decision to swap in your own; different audio means adding another cable to the mix, and the more tethered you feel, the more difficult immersion will be.
Underneath the fabric on the eyebox and the rear triangle of the headstrap are a constellation of infrared LEDs, which allow included IR sensor to track your headset in space. The positional tracking that that allows—crouching and leaning to get a new perspective on your virtual world—is one of the most significant differences between a mobile VR device and a higher-end headset, and it’s also an absolute must for most things you’re going to do in VR. While 360-degree videos and pictures don’t take advantage of positional tracking, games do. And games are by far the most robust use case right now, a fact that’s obvious from the moment you step foot in Oculus Home, the launch environment of the Rift.
The Gear VR has a similar (if less impressive) environment, but if you own a game console you’ll be familiar with the interface immediately: available content shows up in the central menu, with recently played and social tiles off to each side. You can’t currently add friends from within VR; for that, you’ll need to use the Oculus app on your PC, which can also be used to download and update games—30 of them as of today, with another 11 confirmed for later this year. (And, frankly, the desktop app is probably the better option; do you really want to keep the headset on while downloading all 20GB of racing simulator Project CARS?) Social platforms won’t be far behind, and there are a couple of wonderful storytelling experiences from Oculus Story Studio included with the Rift, but if you’re not at least somewhat interested in games then this likely won’t be a day-one purchase for you.
Most game developers realized that third-person games were going to be the most stable, and many of the most enjoyable games available today—from the fantastic Mario-style platformer Lucky’s Tale to VR Tennis—take advantage of that. Those that do tread into first-person view territory are either stationary puzzle games like the snarky Esper 2, or POV games that surround you with a stable environment like a the cockpit of a ship (sci-fi dogfighting game EVE Valkyrie) or race car (Project CARS). And while it’s easy to dismiss VR as an alienating technology, the Rift automatically exports a non-stereoscopic render of its output to your monitor (or TV), so that other people can see what you’re seeing.
Are You Experienced?
But even with that many games available, there’s a rift (no, seriously) between what the Rift can do and what you can do with the Rift. Oculus has never been quiet about the fact that it’s depending on software companies to create the compelling experiences that bring people back to VR again and again. But right now? On the eve of release? Many of the best experiences I’ve had in the Oculus ecosystem either aren’t in the Oculus Store yet, or won’t be available until the company’s Oculus Touch handheld controllers arrive later this year. That’s in stark contrast to the Gear VR, which launched with more 100 games, apps, and experiences. Granted, the technical lift to make something run at 90Hz—twice, for stereo 3D—is much tougher for a PC than it is for a phone, but the difference in launch-day content is noticeable.
That’s not to say that won’t change soon—a company rep says the Store will be receiving monthly updates—but it also puts any reviewer in a strange position. The pipeline of games and experiences coming this year is frankly astonishing, and opens the Rift up to many more people: Eagle Flight lets you soar over Paris and band with friends for bird-on-bird aerial warfare; I Expect You To Die is a diabolical room-escape puzzle game; Fantastic Contraption plunks you into a world that’s the offspring of Tinker Toys and Capsella, building just what the title leads you to expect. But they, like Rock Band VR or Dead and Buried or a handful of other truly compelling titles, aren’t here yet. The ability to play Xbox One games through a virtual TV isn’t here yet. Creation and exploration sandboxes like Oculus’ Toybox demo aren’t here yet. On one hand, that’s a problem. Then again, if you’re actually getting your Rift today, it’s because you were one of the first people to pony up when preorders opened in early January. If you order one today, you won’t get it until July at the earliest—and by then, even if the Touch controllers aren’t here, the Oculus Store will be a much fuller place.
For now, the Xbox controller and Oculus remote are ample input options for what’s available: the launch games, Twitch/Vimeo streaming, access to 360-degree videos, and a few animated experiences, including the Oculus-produced Henry. While Oculus has in the past pushed the Rift as a seated experience, it actually allows you to do much more than that. A bundled suite of scenes called Oculus Dreamdeck (a hyperpolished version of the demos it started showing in 2014) invites you to stand, the better to be able to crouch and walk and explore the many environments you’ll visit throughout it. It may not offer the “room scale” experience that the HTC Vive touts, but it’s certainly not constrained. And throughout it all, the headset stays secure, stable, and comfortable.
But comfort is more than weight. It’s experience. And in that, the Rift more than delivers on its promise. The many technical issues that have plagued VR over the years—latency, image smear, judder—are, if not gone, imperceptible. I’ve been using the Rift for a solid week now, and I’ve had one moment of real discomfort. As much as I’d like to say it was from pulling off an outer-space barrel roll in EVE Valkyrie, it was actually from playing a virtual air-hockey game that had me whipping my head back and forth. (Which, let’s be honest, maybe isn’t the best thing to be doing after a big dinner.)
And this is where we get to the crossroads. This is an astonishingly well-made device. It delivers rock-solid, comfortable VR, and it does so easily. You’ll be able to put this thing on anyone and show them the magic. You’ll have friends coming over just to go through the Dreamdeck. (Seriously, you will.) But you’ll have to make your peace with the idea that your $600—or realistically, $1,500 or more, if you need a PC to go with it—is an investment. It’s an investment in the things you’ll be able to do in the Rift, the places you’ll be able to go.
Many, many more of those will be coming throughout the year, and into the future. The only thing you need to ask yourself is what your personal tipping point is. Is it the Netflix or Hulu apps that are available on the Gear VR? Not on the Rift yet, sorry. A VR web browser? Not on the Rift yet, sorry. Social networks that let you share virtual sunsets with friends, or psychedelic meditation tools to unlock your third eye? Not on the—OK, you get it.
But here’s the thing: They’ll all be here. It’s just a matter of when you want to come in.
Photography: Josh Valcarcel/WIRED