The Oculus Rift Review
A Dream Becomes An Impressive (Virtual) Reality
I first saw Oculus Rift in June 2012, when John Carmack showed me a primitive version of Palmer Luckey's hardware running Doom 3 - and I do mean primitive. Carmack warned of all the problems with head-tracking, latency, and low resolution, but he also noted with a bit of glee that it was the best demonstration of what was possible in virtual reality to date, and he noted that many of the problems would be solved quickly considering the speed at which VR innovation was happening.
I wasn't sold at that exact moment, but I remember saying to myself that while it was flawed, there was something there. It provided a glimmer of what we would come to call "presence" - that feeling of physically being in a virtual place and time.
All those problems Carmack listed were solved rather quickly. In August 2012, Luckey launched the Oculus Rift Kickstarter campaign. It quickly raised $2.4 million and ignited the imagination of gamers and game developers everywhere. The next big step for Oculus was Facebook's purchase of the company on March 25, 2014, for $2 billion in cash and stock, which immediately put VR in the world spotlight.
A lot has changed from that original Rift prototype. The rush of investment dollars has fueled innovation and pushed the hardware forward at a breakneck pace, and the excitement from the development community is unlike anything I have ever seen.
The Oculus Rift is the first consumer unit in this new age of VR, and we finally get to examine the product in the wild. I have been playing games in VR in bits and pieces for the last few years, but for this review I played with the final Rift daily for several weeks and I'm thrilled to share my verdict.
It isn't cheap. For $599 you get the Oculus headset with appropriate support pieces, including an Xbox One controller, the Oculus remote, and the sensor that reads the location of the head-mounted display (the unit that you strap on your face). And that's not factoring in the cost of a high-end computer necessary for running the headset. The unit is tethered to the PC, so it is limited to standing and sitting experiences, and the sensor must have a clear line to the head-mounted display.
These are the basics needed to make VR work without making you unsettled. The camera tracks the headset (working in concert with the gyroscope and accelerometer built into the unit), so when you move your head in VR, the world reacts accordingly. Your brain is not easily fooled; it expects the world to behave within certain rules, and when "what you see" doesn't match up to "what you expect" your body lets you know it.
Setting up the Oculus is surprisingly easy. Its software walks you through installation, and anyone who has plugged a keyboard into a computer before and knows the difference between USB and HDMI should be able to complete the process. After you set up the hardware and create an account, all you need to do is download some software and install it. This process is painless.
The unit has two AMOLED displays that deliver resolution at 1200x1080 per eye and refreshes at 90Hz. The refresh rate of 90 frames-per-second is basically the low-end threshold for VR games, as they must run at 90 frames per second or the user experience suffers. Early versions of the Rift suffered from a "screen-door effect" that made it look like you were viewing the world through a bug screen, but the final hardware seems to have solved this issue. That's not to say that the worlds are crystal clear; you occasionally see a flicker, or the world might appear like you are looking through a lens - because you are.
That said, the performance of the head-mounted display is impressive. The Oculus delivers a believable virtual-reality world. I wouldn't go as far as to say my mind was completely fooled into thinking I was there, but playing games this way takes immersion to another level. The current screen resolution is more than enough to deliver a fantastic experience, the refresh rate is acceptable, and the head tracking feels precise.
The Oculus hardware is surprisingly elegant considering that it makes users look a little silly with the thing strapped onto their heads. Function is clearly valued over form, but kudos to Oculus for creating headgear light enough to be comfortable. Wrapped in fabric to give it a warm, inviting feeling more akin to a piece of clothing rather than a hunk of plastic technology.
The unit uses a series of adjustable Velcro straps to customize the fit, but the harness is spring-loaded so it can stretch as you place it on your head for an easy transition from reality to VR. That is, unless you have glasses - but I'll get to that later.
The trick to wearing the Rift is to let the tracking triangle at the back of the main strap take the bulk of the weight. Think of it like putting on a baseball cap - you want to nestle it to the back of your skull then let that work in concert with the straps to hold it up. While you still have to put a bit of pressure on your face, preventing it from crushing your skull makes the whole experience much more pleasant.
After you have the unit on your head, there is a built-in mic for chat and it's easy to align the integrated headphones (though you can remove them with an included tool if you have other headphones you prefer to use). The integration gives you one less thing to fumble with, and the headphones deliver a more-than-adequate audio experience. I picked up audio cues from all around me, and while the headphones don't completely cover the ears, they drown out outside noise surprisingly well. They also make it easy to free one ear by simply sliding one of the ear pieces back to interact with anyone that walks up (though talking to people while wearing a VR headset feels just as silly for you as it does to the people you are interacting with).
Overall, I can't complain about what Oculus is delivering for the price, since it includes a lot of impressive technology. However, people who wear glasses will have a harder time appreciating it. If you have small frames you may be all right, but I needed to wear my contacts to enjoy the Rift. The image was clearer since I didn't have the headset sitting in odd positions to accommodate my glasses. Wearing contacts also made it bearable to take the headset on and off. Otherwise, I had to take my glasses off, insert them into the unit, and then place the whole contraption onto my head. As I mentioned before, it didn't fit quite right even then, and the pressure it put on my frames resulted in headaches, creating an uncomfortable vice effect that made me worry about the damage it may be causing to my glasses.
The one knock I have on the Rift is Oculus didn't include a pass-through camera so the user can see the real world through the head-mounted display. This decision was probably made to keep costs down, but the inability to see the world around you can be frustrating. I'd place the unit on my head, then realize I hadn't put the controller in my lap, and because I wouldn't want to deal with seating the thing on my face again I would feel around like I was wearing a blindfold to find the controller or remote. I would cross my legs and put my knee into the underside of my desk on a fairly frequent basis. People snuck up on me numerous times as well, but I guess that is the price for presence.
You can't talk about the Oculus Rift without bringing up the PC that you need to run it. The minimum spec requirements aren't low.
- Graphics Card: Nvidia GTX 970/AMD R9 290 equivalent or greater
- Processor: Intel i5-4590 equivalent or greater
- Memory: 8GB+ RAM
- Output: HDMI-compatible 1.3 video output
- Inputs: 3x USB 3.0 ports, 1x USB 2.0
- Operating System: Windows 7 SP1 64-bit or newer
Oculus offers an app that you can download to test your hardware to see what you need to upgrade to run the Rift, but this isn't average PC hardware; unless you purchased your hardware recently, most will need to upgrade or buy a new computer altogether. Oculus is working with Alienware, Asus, and Dell to offer Oculus-ready PCs to purchase that start at $949 with the purchase of a Rift, but that puts minimal entry-level costs of entering the Rift north of $1,600 if you get all the discounts. Without them, I put the entry price at about $2,000 if you don't already have a rig.
All told, the Rift comes at a cost. But is the experience worth it?
When you first put the Rift on, you are greeted by Oculus Home, a giant modern room with three panels for managing friends, recent software, and a center screen that can be toggled between featured items, the store, and your entertainment library. It's intuitive, as you can use a controller to select things or you can navigate with a small dot (essentially a "mouse" pointer that you move with your head). Conversely, you could download and install games from the app on a standard PC monitor, then just fire the entertainment from inside the Rift. Finding entertainment is functional, but the storefront doesn't have all the bells and whistles, like parental controls, wishlists, or patch notes.
A number of movies are available to watch, as well as a few demos to play with that show some interesting things that can be done in VR, but the real attraction for the Rift at this point is the games.
The overall launch line-up offers an impressive degree of variety. One of the great things in VR is that simple things are once again amazing. I've looked at tons of computer monitors and read plenty of notes in games, but this mundane activity is a fresh experience in VR. You lean over books in Chronos, and can flip the pages. It's not exactly groundbreaking, but the way VR draws you in is what makes it special.
Take VR Tennis Online, for example. Playing tennis with the gamepad has been done before, but the ability to read the ball in virtual space makes it more interesting. When you are serving and you toss the ball over your head, you instinctively look up to get a read on the ball. Is this game better than other tennis games? Probably not, but the immersion of VR makes it a singular experience. Normally, I wouldn't play a modern tennis game for 10 minutes, but I'll play for hours in VR.
The range of game experiences is more impressive than just reading pages and tossing tennis balls. Scale goes hand-in-hand with how presence works. Think of the way you play games now as watching the fishbowl from the outside. In VR, you stick your face in the fishbowl, so everything takes on a completely different scale. It's the reason no screenshot can do VR justice; it simply doesn't give you the correct scale of how you see the space.
At times you see games like they are toys, with the world spread out before you like you're surveying a tabletop board game. In these examples, you usually control the action from third-person, but you feel like you are sitting in first-person at the table, effectively manipulating the world.
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Great examples of this in the launch line-up are the real-time strategy game AirMech: Command, the platformer Lucky's Tale, and the racer BlazeRush, all of which are charming and fun, as well as surprisingly immersive. We instinctively think VR means experiences have to be in first-person to deliver presence, but these games show that different perspectives still deliver a powerful effect.
Other titles forgo the included Xbox One controller as your main input and use your gaze as the primary targeting device. A couple of my favorite examples of this are EVE Gunjack, a shooter that puts you in turrets fighting waves of enemies that attack in various formations (think VR Galaga), and Darknet, a puzzle game that challenges you to hack various defense nets in cyberspace. Using your gaze to target is easy, particularly in Gunjack. Normally in a turret game, you see the threat and then react - but in VR, you're already there.
All entertainment for the Oculus Rift comes with a comfort rating: Comfortable, Moderate, or Intense. When you turn, twist, or rotate in cyberspace, the intensity ratchets up, which is why Adr1ft and EVE Valkyrie are two of the most talked-about games for the Oculus (though I think Chronos is the best game in the launch lineup). Both take place in space and are well-produced VR experiences, and both give you a real taste of how VR can produce a sense of presence.
In Valkyrie, you pilot spaceships in a short campaign mode and in multiplayer matches, and while the experience is limited, the sensation of flight is the main attraction. You have a virtual body and cockpit, and since you can use a controller or a flight stick to pilot the craft, it leaves you free to look around, which gives you that feeling of "being there." That ability to control the camera and move at the same time is how you drive a car or ride a bike. Virtual reality brings that intuitive experience to piloting crafts, and Valkyrie delivers that experience.
Adr1ft takes another approach to space, as it puts you in the role of an astronaut coming to just as your space station is torn to bits. Your job: Get home. You piece together the story and solve various puzzles as you work your way through the tatters of your off-planet home, but everything takes on another level of intensity in VR. Your helmet is rendered, so it gives this eerie and claustrophobic feeling of being helpless in the emptiness of space. Your heart pounds in your ears, and you even the slightest nudge sends you tumbling. It's easily the most intense experience on the Rift, and might even be too much for some. But when you come out of an airlock, with debris bouncing off your helmet, your heart pounding in your ears, and suddenly your stomach sinks as the vastness of space finds you floating thousands of miles above earth - that's a testament to the power of VR. It's both beautiful and terrifying all at once.
Adr1ft was one of the few games to give me the queasy feeling that is so often mentioned when talking about VR, but the game wants to make you uncomfortable. Think of VR as an amusement park; some people crave bigger and better roller coasters that push the boundaries of what we can take physically, and others skip those experiences and choose to ride the teacups.
The Oculus lineup does a good job of bringing lots of options so everyone can find something that fits the parameters of their VR sea legs. A couple of experiences got to me, but usually I found that bad software led to poor experiences. For example, Radial-G might be the most intense ride of the launch line-up, but it never hiccups and the world feels believable, so it never made me uncomfortable. Others might not find it as inviting, and this variance from one user to another is why making blanket recommendations is difficult. However, user experience will inform the software community, and that I think things will only get better in the future, both in the experiences built in VR and the way we communicate discomfort so people can find the rides that suit them.
All told, the Oculus software lineup offers a lot of variety, especially at launch. That said, there is no system-seller level piece of software yet. While I expect there to be a lot of software over the coming years, it is unlikely that VR's smaller install base in these early years will allow major software investment at the triple-A level anytime soon.
Virtual reality is an amazing new dimension to gaming and entertainment as a whole, but it's hard not to talk about virtual reality, and specifically the Oculus Rift, right now without bringing up the price.
If cost is a major concern for you, you will likely be disappointed; even though the current offering is impressive, no gaming entertainment can live up to VR's current price tag in the PC space, be it Rift or Vive. But if you have the means, or you are an enthusiast who can overlook the price for the power of the experience, the purchase is worthwhile. Oculus is impressive on so many levels, and after spending endless hours with the unit, I'm drawn to VR like a moth to flame, and I find the hardware execution of the Rift's head-mounted display to be second to none.
The games aren't as advanced as current console triple-A titles, but they are different experiences and bring a different type of fun and wonderment to gaming and entertainment. Watching movies, using a virtual desktop, looking at VR images - it all brings with it a certain sense of awe. Could this luster of novelty wear off? I can't answer that question with certainty. I believe that as the technology advances, and as developers learn to take advantage of it, we will see VR as the ultimate way to experience entertainment. I feel Oculus is at the cutting edge of this form of entertainment, but we aren't there quite yet.
Oculus shipped without the Touch motion controllers, which still don't have a price point, but controllers created for interacting in cyberspace are essential to the future of any VR platform. We will see a lot of innovation in that space and in the technology that fuels VR over the coming years. Oculus Rift is something you buy to be in on the ground floor and experience the amazing beginnings of this technology, as this time it isn't some undercooked 1990s VR experience, Oculus Rift is proof that VR is the real deal. Even though its Touch hardware is coming out at a later date, the Rift offers the best package for VR. The unit is sleek, the software offerings are varied, and the overall package feels more tailored like a console launch than a PC testing ground.
The Final Grade: B
Virtual Reality still has a way to go before it will be in every household, but Oculus Rift is a strong first step. The Oculus launch lineup is solid, with more than a few bright spots. It's a shame Touch wasn't available out of the gate, as adding controllers that interact in virtual space is something that makes VR shine, however I can't help but be impressed with the Oculus Rift, despite its steep cost and minor standard-of-living issues like comfort for people who wear glasses and the lack of a pass-through camera.
If you can afford the Rift, I don't think you will be disappointed. You will find experiences that are indeed singular and spectacular, but this really is only the beginning. If the price is too steep for you right now, not only will the technology improve in future versions, but the software will be more mature, and the cost will come down to a more consumer-friendly price point over time. But definitely get out there and try out the Rift if you do nothing else.