Oculus Rift

VERDICT

I’m not convinced the Oculus RIft is the all-encompassing “future of entertainment,” but I’m optimistic that it might earn that title in the coming weeks, months and years.

PROS:

  • Snug fit
  • Best VR games
  • Growing list of movies and apps

CONS:

  • No Touch Controllers
  • Lacks room-scale option
  • Expensive
  • Can cause nausea

Oculus Rift has been given many titles in the two months since it released to the public. Some have called it “the future of entertainment”, while others have likened it to the launch of the first iPhone.

With all due respect to those that made the aforementioned claims, I’m not buying it, and I don’t think you should either. Not yet, anyway.

In its current state, the Oculus Rift is a smart, well-crafted device, yes, but I think calling it “the future of entertainment” is, at this point, a bit premature. While some experiences in the Rift have the rare ability to ensnare you for hours and leave you craving more the second you take off the visor , others elicit bouts of hours-long nausea that you can’t shake.

You might think about it longingly before you go to bed after a lengthy session immersed in a virtual world and wake up excited to see what new game or 360-degree video has landed on the Oculus storefront, only to be disappointed that while one or two new videos have been added, it’s more or less the same as you left it yesterday. More content is definitely on the way, but very little of it is available right this minute.

Oculus Rift

The Rift’s amazing ability to transport you to new worlds can’t be overstated. It’s truly revolutionary when it’s firing on all cylinders and games, media and virtual spaces coalesce into a new reality. But there’s a barrier preventing you from interacting with your new locale. As of right now, the Oculus Touch Controller is still AWOL, and may not be available to purchase until the end of this year. The only tool you’re given to interact with your surroundings is an ineffective one: an Xbox One controller.

You can make the point that the Touch Controllers will be here soon and that they, in many ways, will reshape the entire experience. But think about this: If the controllers aren’t a mandatory part of the package, the user base will be split into those that opt to pay more for them and those that choose to go without. Not sure what a fragmented audience looks like? Ask Xbox One owners how they feel about the once-mandatory Kinect.

I don’t want to harsh the buzz of this brave new world – there’s good reason to be optimistic about the future of virtual reality – however, for right now at least, everything wonderful and good about the Rift comes with a caveat.

Oculus Rift

But before we dive too deep into specifics, let’s take a moment to talk about the two most important aspects to consider before deciding to buy a Rift of your own: price and the minimum PC requirements.

If you’ve been following the virtual reality scene you probably know this already, but the Oculus Rift requires a wired connection to a PC in order to have enough power to drive two 1080×1200 resolution images to each lens inside the headset. It can’t just be any old run-of-the-mill PC, either – you’re going to need a top of the line gaming PC to enjoy everything the Rift has to offer.

The minimum specs put out by Oculus call for an Intel Core i5 4590 or equivalent processor, 8GB of RAM and an NVIDIA GTX 970 or AMD Radeon 290 video card. Most of the hardcore gaming community might already have these components on hand, but if you’re a casual gamer or currently more of a PC layman, these parts will be the first of two costly investments you need to pay for upfront.

The other expenditure is the Oculus Rift itself, which comes in at $600 / £499 / AU$649. That’s about $200 less than its closest competitor, the HTC Vive, and about $200 more than the headset Sony is putting out in October for the PS4.

Performance-wise I find it to be a “you get what you pay for” situation. When paired with the proper hardware, the Oculus Rift is far superior to PlayStation VR, and light years ahead of Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR, both of which only rely on the power of your cell phone to gaze into the plane of virtual reality. It’s not quite as immersive or as capable as the HTC Vive, but I’ll touch on that point more in a bit.

So what exactly are you buying? What does the Oculus Rift do?

Oculus Rift

How the Oculus Rift works

I’ve tried my best to explain virtual reality in words and, on multiple occasions, have completely and utterly failed. At best all I can do is paint a half-cocked image in hopes to inspire you to go out and find a friend or coworker with an Oculus Rift of their own who’d be kind enough to let you give it a whirl. Here goes nothing.

Imagine standing on the ledge of a 100-story building. Imagine looking down at the street below you. Imagine the tightening of your stomach and the sense of dread that you might, at any second, fall to your demise.

Now imagine taking one step forward.

You’re falling and the world is whipping before you. You’re petrified. But you also feel alive. The second right before you hit the ground is the worst – your brain is actually prepared for the moment by dumping adrenaline into your system as a mild painkiller.

But while all this is happening, you haven’t actually moved. You’ve been sitting in a chair in your own home, staring into a screen. Your biometrics have changed, but, geographically speaking, you’re exactly where you were 10 minutes ago.

This is what it’s like to use virtual reality, to get the experience of being somewhere else in a different time, a different place, sometimes as far as an alien world, all without ever leaving your home.

This product is the fruit of a four-year research project that launched on Kickstarter, made $2 million, then was purchased by one of the most powerful tech companies in the world, Facebook. The Oculus Rift shipping these days is the first commercially available unit – the fourth evolution of the headset that started back in 2012 with Developer Kit 1.

The latest iteration of the headset is significantly better than any of the previous development kits. It’s easier to setup thanks to an intuitive program that you’re prompted to download when you plug it in, and it takes less technical knowhow to install games and troubleshoot when things go awry.

Like other virtual reality headsets, the Oculus RIft has the arduous task of completely immersing you in a video game by producing two images simultaneously. It does this by hooking into the back of your graphics card’s HDMI port and using a camera to track your head movement. You can either sit or stand while wearing the headset, whichever you find more comfortable. But, unlike the HTC Vive, you won’t be able to actually walk around at all.

Oculus Rift

Inside every box is the headset itself, the Oculus Sensor, a small Oculus Remote that can be used to control videos and change the volume on the headset, a Xbox One Wireless Controller with 2 AA batteries, an Xbox One controller adapter and extender and Lucky’s Tale, a platforming game that is best compared to a 360-degree version of Super Mario Bros. If you pre-ordered the Rift, it will also come with EVE: Valkyrie Founder’s Pack.

Once you’ve plugged the headset into the HDMI port on your GPU, the two USB cables from the headset and sensor to two USB 3.0 ports on your PC and the Xbox One controller adapter into a USB 2.0 port on your PC, you’re ready to start the short and simple setup process, which only takes about 10 minutes.

What you’ll find when you’re done is a library of about 40 titles that are lengthier than anything found on the HTC Vive. I played nearly all of them, and while some were better than others, there weren’t any that I felt were a waste of time or money. I’ll cover them in more detail on the next page but, in the broadest of strokes, the Rift is a fun gaming system, even if it feels stilted right now.

It’s almost scary how far the Oculus Rift has come in such a short period of time.

The headset we tested just two years ago felt rough, cheap and borderline shoddy. It didn’t track well and trying to get lag-free gameplay – even on a powerhouse gaming rig – was just short of impossible.

The final consumer version of the headset on the other hand is an elegant, sleek and, dare I say, stylish black brick you stick on your face. You may not look great wearing it, but the actual hardware can’t be faulted for aesthetics.

When you first hold it, it’s not weighty – in fact, it almost has a hollow feel, like all the weight has been put into the chassis and there’s nothing but glass and thin film inside. Put it on, however, and those expectations of fluffy weightlessness will all go away.

When you’re sitting down, the visor portion will weigh heavy on the front of your head. It’s not something you notice immediately, but something you’ll feel in your neck the longer you’re immersed in your new virtual world. Thankfully, it doesn’t necessarily dig in thanks to dense foam, but when it’s tightened to the proper point, it’s a snug fit. There are foam cushions on the back portion of the strap, too, so the back of your head rests in a cushy cradle.

The straps are a bit on the rigid side. They’re made from bendable plastic that has some give, but overall holds its shape. There’s velcro located on each strap that you use to adjust the position of the headset on your face.

Oculus Rift

These straps are absolutely vital as the Rift needs to be positioned properly on your face, otherwise the focus in the VR experience is off. This will happen if the headset is hanging a little loose or isn’t centered, creating a blurred effect. Too tight, and while the headset is secure and the focus generally spot on, it tends to be uncomfortable. When this happened, it never got to the point where I needed to take the headset off to escape the discomfort, but it ached slightly, and left a headset-shaped impression on my face.

The opposite problem isn’t good, either. When it’s too loose, gaps allow light to come through from underneath the faceplate. Light will peek through and games will suddenly lose some of their immersiveness when you can see your hands working on the Xbox controller.

But sight is just one of the senses that needs to be transformed to feel fully immersed in virtual reality. The other, as you might guess, is hearing.

To address this, Oculus includes a pair of small ear pads that sit flush on the side of the headset. They can be rotated to sit directly on top of the ear, or flipped up when someone needs your attention back in the real world. I find, for the most part, that the headphones provided with the Rift work well. They offer 3D surround sound and have enough clarity to clearly hear all the in-game audio cues.

The only real problem I had with the headphones is that they randomly disconnect from time to time. I’ll be in the middle of a game when, all of a sudden, the sound completely cuts out.

Oculus Rift

However, like the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift allows you to use your own headphones instead of forcing a pair on you. I picked a pair of Creative Sound Blaster H5s due to their padding and excellent sound quality, and using an external pair of cans eliminated any issues I had with the sound cutting out. You can plug the headphones into your computer’s audio jack or, if you’re sitting too far from your PC, straight into the 3.5mm jack on the Xbox One controller.

The other benefit of using your own pair of headphones, especially one with a volume slider on the side or in the cord, is that it makes it easier to manage the volume when it’s too loud or too soft. (Though, admittedly, it’s almost always the former.)

Another piece of the puzzle here is the Xbox One controller which, as of right now, is your only option when playing games on the Oculus Rift. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Microsoft’s excellent gamepad. As far as controllers go, it’s probably the best.

That said, virtual reality is no place for a standard controller. There are a few titles that feel natural with a controller – Lucky’s Tale and Pinball FX VR are two that pop to mind – but that leaves about three dozen games that desperately need Touch controls and won’t find relief until later this year.

Oculus Rift

With the Xbox One controller, games in first-person that use the left thumbstick to move create a sort of cognitive dissonance: it feels like you’re moving, but your body is just sitting there, creating a sinking feeling in your stomach. The Rift isn’t anywhere close to Nintendo’s Virtual Boy system that caused seizures back in the ’90s, but expect to get varying degrees of nausea while trying out the different titles.

But we’ll Touch on the controller and how it works in VR more deeply in a minute.

The last important part is the long strand of cables connecting the headset to the PC. It comes out the rear of the headset and curves over your back or shoulder, so you can then hide it behind your chair. When you’re sitting or standing, the cord doesn’t get in the way, but if you’re attempting to go for complete Matrix-style immersion, it’s something you can constantly feel.

Performance and content library

OK, so far everything we’ve talked about applies to every Oculus Rift setup out there. Here’s where we start to venture into “your miles may vary” territory.

What I’ve found, using a properly spec’d PC, is that performance is rock-solid. I never noticed a screen tear or a dropped frame in any of the games I played. That speaks volumes about the kind of quality control Oculus is exerting on the games that come to its svelte storefront, and again how far this hardware has come in four short years.

Tracking, done through the included Oculus Sensor, is fairly sturdy, too. You’re able to turn your body more than 180 degrees and it will still recognize what you’re doing. The sensor sits about 10 inches above your desk and can be tilted up or down, depending on what position you’re currently in.

Oculus Rift

Take off the headset and the visor shuts off. Pick it up and put it on, and the screen will light back up. The external and internal sensors are pretty smart, thankfully, meaning you won’t need to manually switch the headset on when you want to use it.

What the sensor can’t track, at least for the moment, are your hands. And that’s a deal breaker.

I can’t tell you how many times I wish I had the Touch Controllers while playing games on the Rift. Using a controller to move a bumper in air hockey simply feels unnatural. Not shipping them until later – making them an optional upgrade for the many thousands who already pre-ordered and own an Oculus Rift – might be a major faux pas.

There’s a level of intuition that comes from using your hands. You know how to throw a ball, how to climb a rock wall and shake hands in real life. Translating the most basic of movements to a controller is imperfect at best and convoluted at worst, especially if you’re someone who doesn’t frequently use an Xbox One controller.

Moreover, because every game seems to be shoehorned to work with a controller, it feels like you could take almost any game on the Oculus storefront and port it over to an Xbox One without actually losing anything.

And while some of those games are really fun, immersive experiences, some of them – even the first-party titles – are plain gimmicky. Like looking into a 2016 version of our childhood Viewfinder, animated images will run up to you, roar in your face or threaten you to elicit a psychological response. It’s a shallow parlor trick, similar to watching the first movies in 3D.

Oculus Rift

This is made up for, somewhat, by the huge selection of well thought out titles. All the games you’ve been drooling over are here: EVE Valkyrie, Elite Dangerous and ADR1FT are all available on the store, with plenty more to come sooner rather than later. Even more exciting, though, are that there are plenty of games that work with the Rift that aren’t on the store, including family-favorite Minecraft.

Oculus sorts games by how much motion there is in the game, and how likely it is to make your stomach churn. There are three set levels: comfortable, moderate and intense. Comfortable games barely require moving your head and, if you do, you do so slowly. Moderate steps it up a notch. You’ll either need to move more quickly or be faced with more moving objects. Finally, intense games will probably be the ones that do you in. These stick you on the side of a mountain or floating around haphazardly in space; they’re more visceral of experiences, but ones that are more likely to provoke anxiety and induce nausea, too.

Oculus Rift

As this is a new medium, pricing for said games is all over the place. Some games are appropriately priced in the $4.99-$9.99 space, while others come in at $40 or $50 (about £35.37, AU$66.57) for what are essentially extended demos. As of right now there’s also no way to try any of the games before you buy them, which means you’ll need to make a leap of faith when purchasing.

Speaking of payment, Oculus will prompt you to enter your credit card information as soon as you have your system setup, but will allow you to skip past it if you’re not quite ready to hand over your digits sight unseen.

If you’re looking for hard numbers, I counted 37 titles the day I penned this review. That’s about 12 less than the HTC Vive, but Oculus makes up for that with seven short films and four apps, which include a video app that aggregates 360-degree videos from Facebook, Vimeo and Twitch, and a 360-degree photo app.

Switching between one game/movie/app and the next is a relatively painless process. Simply press the jewel button on the center of the Xbox controller, select “exit” and you’ll be returned to the home screen – in this case, a swanky living room replete with a fireplace, a couch and high-res pillows that throws a standard Xbox-looking interface in the middle of the room. (I’m pointing out the ridiculous nature of having a domestic-looking home screen here, obviously, but the interface that you use to peruse the storefront is actually very well designed.)

While you’re able to buy games without ever leaving the confines of the luxurious homescreen, some titles require you to take off the headset to complete the installation. And, yes, in practice it’s just as annoying as it sounds.

Motion sickness and building a tolerance to VR

According to Oculus, if you want to stay in virtual reality for more than a few minutes, you’re going to need to build a tolerance.

The first time I tried VR, I felt very sick. Only by subjecting myself to the feelings of disassociation, anxiety and paralyzing overwhelmingness that can be experienced when you put on a virtual reality headset over multiple occasions could I finally overcome this feeling and start to actually enjoy VR.

Your body isn’t used to feeling disconnected to the visual stimuli it’s receiving. Even if you game for hours and hours per day, you still are sitting in the real world, periodically removing your gaze from the television to look at your cellphone or interact with another human being. In virtual reality, the only things you see are the screen and the objects on it, yet you can’t physically interact with them. This leads to the feeling of disconnection and resulting nausea.

Oculus Rift

However, once you get your space legs, there are still two big problems you have to face.

The first is that no matter what position you are in, as long as your arms and hands aren’t represented in-game, you’re forever going to feel a pang of disassociation whenever you look down at your body.

The second problem is that, while I enjoyed every second I spent in virtual reality, the transition of coming back to the real world was one that I found especially difficult. Without dramatizing the emotions, I felt as though I wasn’t all there when I took off the helmet. The closest feeling I can pick out is the one where you look at yourself in the mirror and don’t really understand the person looking back at you.

You’re still you, but it doesn’t feel like you at first.

As disconcerting as they may sound, these side-effects don’t actually concern me based on previous experience, and I’ll keep to my habits of extended use after I’m done writing this review. I’ve played video games on CRT TVs long enough to know that, while strange, these secondary effects do fade in time without leaving behind permanent damage.

VR Sports Challenge

The future of the Oculus Rift and VR in general

Even though you’ve spent the last few minutes reading the 4,000 words or so I’ve written detailing how games work, what virtual reality is like and what you can expect from the Oculus Rift when the company finally ships yours – seriously people, if you’re still waiting, cancel your order and go to the store to buy one – there’s still more to talk about.

Oculus has amazing plans for the Rift. It could very well be the next evolution of Facebook. We might one day hold meetings in virtual reality. I mean, it has a microphone built-in, so there’s absolutely nothing stopping Oculus from enabling such a feature next week.

You might one day use it as a therapeutic tool, letting the hardware transport you to a beach where you can meditate. There are plans to use it as a gateway to music festivals, like South by Southwest and Coachella, as well as live concerts and sports games.

There are even porn companies that are shooting 360-degree videos that you can watch on devices like the Oculus Rift. (If you’re into that kind of stuff, we have a great article about it written by my colleagues, Michelle Fitzsimmons and James Peckham.)

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s a lot of potential here, and once we learn how to tap into it better by becoming native VR users, it’s only going to get better.

I’m still not convinced the Oculus RIft is the all-encompassing “future of entertainment” that others have labeled it as, but I’m optimistic that it might earn that title in the coming weeks, months and years.

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