Hands-on: Oculus Rift "Crystal Cove" prototype
January 9, 2014
For the last few decades, gaming has basically been the same thing. Sit in front of display, hold controller (or mouse and keyboard), play game. But when you strap on Oculus Rift's virtual reality headset, you realize that it's something truly different. Read on, as Gizmag goes heads-on with Oculus Rift's latest prototype, dubbed Crystal Cove.
Virtual reality has been the subject of science-fiction, futurist fantasies, and cheesy Aerosmith videos for at least a few decades. But Oculus Rift is making virtual reality a reality. It's almost cliche to say that Oculus is like nothing you've ever experienced before, but sometimes cliches are all you have.
When it comes to Oculus Rift, all the standard ways of communicating about a product go out the window. Pictures don't do it. Video can't capture it. The closest we can get is a subjective first-person account of the experience. And even then you still won't truly grasp it until you try it yourself.
"When I was in there." That's how I begin describing my experience of using Oculus Rift. Not "when I wore the headset" or "when I played the game." My brain perceived the experience as some kind of alternate reality that I stepped into. At that point it ceases to be a piece of hardware or a new gaming accessory. It's your portal into a virtual reality.
My colleague Jonathan Fincher took an earlier Oculus prototype for a test drive a year ago, but today was my first time "going in there." That older version only responded to basic head movements – effectively taking your body, from the neck down, out of the equation. But the new Crystal Cove prototype adds a camera (which sits in front of you) that lets you lean in all directions and truly navigate the world you've stepped into.
My first visit to the Matrix took me into a simple tower defense game rigged up for the demo. There was a board full of swinish soldiers infiltrating my base, and it was up to me to activate my defenses to ward them off. The controller in my hand let me turn my turrets and flames on or off. It sounds simple enough.
But the magic comes when you start leaning and turning. Lean forward and turn your head to the left, and you can closely examine a crucial area of the tower. You then feel like you're a few inches away from your invaders. Lean back, and you get a broader view of the base you're defending. The effect is as if you're looking down on a board game-sized tower full of exploding weapons and living attackers.
For my second demo, I was piloting a space fighter. Apparently I'm terrible at flight simulators because I didn't last too long, but I was "in there" long enough to realize Oculus' potential for bringing new life to tired genres. I'm not only looking into space and targeting on enemies. I can also look around my cockpit, read essential weapons data on my control panels, and even see my arms and legs.
That might be the strangest part of Oculus at this point. You look down, and you expect to see your own body. But in a demo like the flight simulator, you see another body. It almost feels like you've possessed it. When I lifted my arm and my virtual arm didn't move, it felt like I was paralyzed.
There will come a day when virtual reality goes full body (and, trust me, the folks at Oculus are highly aware of this long-term potential), but in games that give you a body, it's almost as if your mind has been injected into another human being – one that you can only partially control.
When talking about Oculus, it's almost easy to forget about technical details and hardware, because the experience is so profound. But that's a statement to the technical leaps that Oculus' engineers have been making. One of the subtle changes in the latest prototype is a reduction – almost elimination – of motion blur. Apparently in the earlier versions, when you'd move your head quickly, your environment would take on a feathery, melted butter effect. Now it stays sharp and clear. The Oculus folks showed me a before/after demo of the new tech, and though it wasn't a huge difference, I can see how it would be a lot more noticeable after being "in there" for long periods.
There are two questions that everyone wants to know. "When can I buy it?" and "How much?" Oculus is staying tight-lipped on both fronts for now, though we did get some hints at pricing. They say they want to stay competitive, and really like the US$200-400 range. Another time I heard the figure $300 pop up as a ballpark.
Oculus will connect to your gaming machine via USB and HDMI. They told me that a wireless version could eventually hit the market, but it brings extra technical challenges (like battery bulk) and won't be in the initial retail version. I say no matter. Once you're "in there," your physical environment disappears. Position the wires so they aren't in your way, and it won't matter one bit.
Oculus also says that it's initially targeting PC and mobile devices. It could, of course, technically work on consoles like the Xbox One or PS4, but that would require cooperation from Microsoft and Sony. It isn't yet clear whether those walled gardens will open their doors to the hot startup from Irvine, CA. The same would go for Apple devices, so it sounds like PCs (including Windows, Mac, and Linux) and Android devices will be the likeliest destinations for Oculus.