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Hands-on: Oculus Rift "Crystal Cove" prototype

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January 9, 2014

Gizmag goes heads-on with the new Crystal Cove prototype of the Oculus Rift virtual realit...

Gizmag goes heads-on with the new Crystal Cove prototype of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset

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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.

This is what you see right before strapping Oculus to your noggin

"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.

This is what you see, but in my world, I'm looking down at my cockpit's control panel

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.

Whoa, watch out!

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.

Crystal Cove prototype

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.

About the Author
Will Shanklin Will Shanklin is Gizmag's Mobile Tech Editor, and has been part of the team since 2012. Will has a Master's degree from U.C. Irvine and a Bachelor's from West Virginia University. He currently lives in New Mexico with his wife, Jessica.
  All articles by Will Shanklin
16 Comments

Shut up and take my money!!!! I'd sell a kidney for one of these....

mem5000
9th January, 2014 @ 12:04 pm PST

Wireless and mobile? And people call those few wearing 'Glass' dorks? The possibilities are endless!

Anybody remember reading an (fairly) early sci-fi novel worrying about teenagers who were 'virtually' opting out of reality by only seeing their drab or boring environment through the filter of VR?

If you were an OGRE, or KING or PRINCESS, that is how you saw your world around you, an ELF? you saw cars, for instance, like dangerous orcs or something.

I seem to remember the story used reading brainwaves for the control system, so the better they were at imagination, the more the story sucked them into it.

If the device failed, or was turned off, it was like drug withdrawal and as hard to cope with.

The Skud
9th January, 2014 @ 05:34 pm PST

I'll give you a healthy chunk of liver for one.. they grow back right???

Simon Sammut
9th January, 2014 @ 08:08 pm PST

Wondering if this will fry your eyeballs.

Seth Miesters
10th January, 2014 @ 12:11 am PST

I don't think that Steve Jobs would agree with you on that one.

TV sets and Monitors were never the real reason why people got eye problems, that is just a common myth.

David Guzman
10th January, 2014 @ 02:35 am PST

I would have appreciated a little more description of the visual display aspects of the device, such as how good was the definition? In older devices moving the head and then having a time lag see where to experience motion sickness, which is obviously very off-putting. I guess this is not a problem, now.

These devices are one approach to the subject of virtual reality. Another method is hypnosis, which, if it works for the subject, gives total immersion in all senses. Obviously the cost is minimal, if not nothing (if you know a friendly hypnotist).

windykites1
10th January, 2014 @ 06:46 am PST

Awesome! I've got a dev kit and the thing rocks. I and everyone else who've tried it have been genuinely impressed. Glad to hear they're on the case with the retail version. Best 300 bucks I spent in 2013. I would actually line up for one of these, Apple-style :-) aside from from vr, they're clearly going to be used for Tele presence. I am currently trying to get mine talking to a remote camera to go on an rc aircraft... Oh yeah, the future is now, baby!

Hogey74
10th January, 2014 @ 07:24 am PST

They have been talking about these things forever (10+ years?) But if they have finally removed the lag time and jittery movement then they truly will have something worth selling now and should jump on producing and selling it now.

These things will be profound media access changers and won't be the only ones for long. Whoever gets in 1st (think Apple with the 1st Ipod, Iphone and IPad) will make killer profit margins until everyone else catches up. Think how quickly this will work itself into the $1 trillion global entertainment industry. The think how it will slowly erode/work it's way into gaming, adult entertainment, movies viewing, business travel, design and art companies, medical imaging, and the control of heavy equipment and drones. The future won't wait much longer.

Matt Fletcher
10th January, 2014 @ 10:00 am PST

This will provide a quantum leap in budget piloting. Model with gimbal mounted cabin cam, tilting chair for pilot.

Douglas Bennett Rogers
10th January, 2014 @ 10:07 am PST

One has to wonder how long they can maintain the no price, no date posture and still attract trucks full of money. I'll believe in a "consumer" version when I can order one and expect it within the week. Until then it remains smoke and mirrors. Demonstrable smoke and mirrors, yes, but still smoke and mirrors.

DonGateley
10th January, 2014 @ 12:16 pm PST

Two questions: What if you have some hair? i{^_^} What if you have glasses?

Light_Lab
11th January, 2014 @ 04:54 pm PST

The main feature of the Oculus that's difficult to convey is the 3d environment you enter. Many people are stuck in the pov of being in front of a monitor and expect the HMD to be another version of that kind of display. Although the reality in there is CG and game-like, you have the ability to move around in it and it becomes an enveloping world, hence the description of going in.

The scale of things is realistic, and it's use as an architectural walk-through is going to be a primary feature. Even viewing 3d stills is fantastic, and it's quite like the scale of being in an I-max theater.

The media has to start getting 3d content. I gnash my teeth at the loss of opportunity to get 3d video of things like the superb series Planet Earth, The Blue Planet etc. Not to mention adult fare.

It truly is a game-changer.

PS, I wear glasses for near-sightedness and just don't use them with the first-gen Oculus. It softens the image a bit and helps blend the pixels. Prediction ... many people will get contacts or Lasik just to better use their HMD.

Roaster
12th January, 2014 @ 07:40 pm PST

@Roaster "The media has to start getting 3d content"

I'm sure they will line up to do so when it doesn't look so awful. Every 3D movie I've seen has been a major disappointment, looking so much worse than 2D it's really best kept for 1950s-style "jump out at you" tricks and ignored for the rest. It may be that the 3D effect works better when you have properly independent displays - the crosstalk from polarised or lenticular displays just looks terrible.

I'd buy one for interactive stuff though.

Synchro
14th January, 2014 @ 06:35 am PST

What was that VR simulator getting around in the 80's? I had a go at a shopping centre and was hooked, even bought the T-shirt. I wondered for 30 years what happened to the tech. Now I could sit next to the wife while she watches her crap and play.

@David

I thought it was staring at the same focus distance for hours that messed with your eyes.

Ozuzi
15th January, 2014 @ 05:49 pm PST

I've heard quite enough hype about this for years now. It's time to put up or shut up.

b@man
20th January, 2014 @ 10:08 am PST

@Matt Fletcher

"Whoever gets in 1st (think Apple with the 1st Ipod, Iphone and IPad) will make killer profit margins until everyone else catches up. "

Apple was not the first mover in any of those categories. They just happened to time when the market was ready and had the right set of features that the market was ready for. Nokia had a smart phone before Apple. Creative and Archos had players beforehand. Tablets had been around for several years.

Being the first mover does no good if you don't have a good pulse on the market both in terms of timing and features.

Regardless, this looks like a fantastic device, and if it has traction, one of the big boys (Google, MS, Sony, etc) will acquire them, or they will develop their own versions.

Chris White
20th February, 2014 @ 12:33 pm PST
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