When I think of virtual reality, I think of immersive experiences that transport me to places, real or make believe, I would otherwise never see. VR is the stuff of sci-fi: mesmerizing, otherworldly, and maybe just a little unsettling. It’s going from Point A to who knows where or when, without physically leaving wherever your mortal shell is in the here and now.
Oculus Rift has achieved this effect, and it’s done so in what feels like the blink of an eye. If you know Rift’s story, you know it’s been a several-years’ long process to get to this point – just a few days away from releasing to consumers on March 28. I can say from my own personal experience of first using the Rift at GDC 2014 all the way to using it at GDC 2016, it’s come a long, long way.
The changes begin in the hardware itself. Compared to that first early prototype and later dev kits, the final consumer Rift is unobtrusive, lightweight and comfortable.
It then extends to the software. Rift’s launch games, which I also played this week, are precisely, often beautifully, rendered. The latency and pixelation issues of earlier Rifts are a distant memory. The games are smooth and stable, and each is delightful in its own way. Whereas at that GDC two years ago, the experiences were short, laggy, yet promising demos, Rift’s 30 launch titles are fully realized games.
Oculus has placed a premium on great content for Rift, developed both internally and externally, as founder Palmer Luckey explained to me.
There’s no argument the games are gorgeous … if you’re using Oculus Rift on an optimized PC. Therein lies the rub: if you’re not, how do games like ADR1FT, an intense launch title set in space, run? I asked Oculus just that question, but haven’t heard back yet. I can imagine, however, that it’s not going to be a good time for anyone.
If your PC is up to spec – which will cost at least $1,500 (about £1,061, AU$2,011) on top of $599/£499/AU$649 for the headset – then Oculus Rift opens up worlds that are unlike anything you’ve ever seen or experienced. The best part? It’s all only going to get better.
What it’s like to wear Oculus Rift
The Oculus Rift headset 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.
It’s a far cry from the rough, almost shoddy exterior of the very first prototype we tried only a few years ago.
Oculus Rift final consumer edition isn’t weighty: it almost has a hollow feel, though once you have it on it definitely feels like you have on something more substantial than a baseball cap over your head and eyes.
The visor portion doesn’t dig in thanks to dense foam and, when it’s tightened just right, it fits snuggly and comfortably. Foam cushions the back portion of the strap, so it’s almost like your head is cradled in the Rift.
It is a little tricky, however, to get the headset to fit just right. When it’s too loose, gaps allow light to come through from underneath the faceplate. Personally, it was kind of a relief to have some connection to the outside world when I looked down and could see a sliver of my hands holding the Xbox One controller, though some may find it distracting.
Rift also needs to be positioned properly on your face, otherwise the focus in the VR experience is off, which will happen if the headset is too loose, creating a blurred effect. Too tight, and while the headset is secure and the focus generally spot on, it can feel slightly uncomfortable. It never got to the point where I needed to take the headset off to escape the discomfort, but it ached slightly, like I was wearing a hat a few sizes too small.
The headphones are as unobtrusive as they come. They’re built into the headset, and you can easily flip them over to hear the outside world. When they are flipped toward your ear canal, they pump in crisp audio that adds to the immersion.
With the headphones, it almost feels like you’re wearing a lightweight helmet rather than a visor, and it helps draw you even further into the virtual world before your eyes.
The headphones are good, though it may be an issue for hardcore gamers who want a premium sound using their own headphones. It’s great the headphones are built-in for ease of use, but it may not be the quality everyone is looking for or expecting.
Another gripe with the audio is that it can be so enveloping, especially if the volume is turned up. I had to strain to hear what people in the room who were sitting no more than two feet away from me were saying if the volume was on the higher end. Unlike HoloLens, which lets you not only see everything that’s in your environment but also hear fairly well, you don’t have that ability with Oculus Rift.
I foresee it becoming troublesome if someone comes into a room to talk to you, but you can’t see or hear them. Maybe that’s what you want – some uninterrupted alone time – but it could be harder for some to justify tuning out the world completely.
I’ll dive into controls a little later in this review, but the Xbox One controller I played most of the launch titles with felt like a bit of an add-on. “Here, we didn’t make this, but you need it to play!” There weren’t any hardware issues, though. It’s a smooth, capable controller, so no complaints there.
The final standout piece of the hardware is the PC tether, the headset’s lifeline to the engine that runs all of its experiences. It comes out the rear of the headset and curves over your back or shoulder, and it’s a light touch that you don’t really feel unless your arm gets hooked under it, which happened to me . You’ll also definitely notice it if you’re sitting on it, start to tilt your head forward and suddenly find you can’t move it any further, like reaching the end of a rope.
I played a Rift game standing, and while I could sense the tether’s presence, it didn’t get in the way (and I didn’t fall over it – yay!). One of this particular game’s producers told me that the team designed it for a PC and accounted for the tether, so it in a way influenced the game, or at least in how the devs thought about helping players avoid it.