The Oculus Rift VR system has been steadily gaining more attention in the past several months, thanks to glowing endorsements from some major figures in the the video game industry and a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign that brought in almost US$2.5 million. We've been following the development of the Oculus Rift for some time now, so finding out the company had its virtual reality goggles available to try on at CES was an especially pleasant surprise. Naturally, we simply couldn't resist giving the Rift a test drive to see if it lived up to all the hype.
It's important to note beforehand that the VR headset I tried on absolutely does not reflect a potential consumer version – rather it's the latest prototype of a forthcoming developer kit. Now, with that out of the way ...
First of all, the goggles are surprisingly comfortable, especially given their bulky appearance. Most of the tech has been built into a regular pair of ski goggles with two viewfinders protruding slightly in front of each eye to completely encompass your field of view. Once fitted over your head, the padding around the goggles and strap ensures the Rift remains snug against your face. Combine that with the lightweight components and wearing the Oculus VR headset is no less cumbersome than any ordinary pair of goggles.
The one negative toward the comfort is that the Rift's lenses put some extra pressure on people wearing glasses, such as myself, making it feel like your face is being squeezed a little too much. It wasn't excruciating, but it diminished the experience a bit. The Oculus reps stated the team is still working on adapting their model to accommodate glasses-wearing users and lessen the weight of the goggles even further.
Once I'd settled in, my eyes took a moment to adjust to the game world, during which time the separate images in each eye didn't appear to overlap as smoothly, (this may have been due to my glasses, as mentioned before). After about 30 seconds though, I barely noticed it and eventually totally forgot I was looking at a video screen.
My demo began inside a chamber of a medieval castle, lit only by torchlight. From that starting point, I was able to look around the cramped space using just my head movements, while walking around was handled by an Xbox 360 controller with standard first-person controls (right analog stick to move forward and back, left stick to turn, A to jump, etc.). Walking through a nearby door led me to the streets of a snow-covered town that gave me flashbacks to Skyrim (I even found myself craning my head to the skies to watch out for dragons).
VP of Product at Oculus, Nate Mitchell, invited me to look in all directions: up to the top of a nearby tree, down a road off to the side, even behind me to the door I had just exited. Aside from some slight motion blur, the low latency made the head tracking feel incredibly accurate and having an individual image for each eye also created a sharp 3D effect. It was a strange feeling knowing I was surrounded by people in a crowded convention hall but only seeing empty streets and mountains that stretched on for miles.
Of course, having the entire game screen filling my field of view kept me engrossed, but it was the tiniest details that really drove the immersion home. At one point, I approached a shop with a sign over the door advertising swords and armor, which I read simply by looking up at it, just as I've done countless times on any street in real life. It all felt surprisingly natural to simply walk around like any other game, but taking in the scenery with a casual turn of my head, as if I were a tourist in a new location.
Pulling the right trigger on the controller also shot green energy blasts, which didn't affect anything in this game world but illustrated how an action-packed shooter might work with the technology. Aiming involved simply picking a target and looking straight at it, which proved to be much more accurate than using a controller.
I must've said the word "amazing" at least a dozen times during my brief session. I only had them on for about five minutes but could have easily spent an hour just exploring the demo world, even with no objectives. One word of caution though: taking the Rift off can be a bit disorienting for a moment as your eyes take a while to readjust to the real world – not unlike stepping outside after watching a 3D movie in a darkened theater.
The Oculus reps repeatedly stressed that this was "day zero" for the VR system – in other words, the device on show still has plenty of development ahead of it. When asked about a possible consumer version, they said that the main focus at the moment is on delivering dev kits to their Kickstarter backers and pre-order customers by March of this year. Right now, they have no info on when a consumer model will be ready, or even what specs or price it might have.
I confess, I've remained cautiously optimistic about the Rift since it was first revealed, having been burned by promises of "lifelike" virtual reality in the past. But Oculus could be onto something completely different here. Comparing any other consumer-grade VR setup to the Oculus Rift is like comparing a silent film from the 1920s to Star Wars. The difference is just that startling. It truly provides the kind of virtual reality experience that we've only seen in movies and television shows up to this point.
If Oculus gains the proper support, it wouldn't be too surprising to see virtual reality become a staple of the video game industry in the near future, much like motion controls have with the Wii and Kinect.
We'll definitely be keeping a close eye on the Oculus Rift's development in the months and years to come. If you can't wait that long though, and have $300 to spend, you can pre-order your own developer kit through Oculus' website.