Experienced Points

Experienced Points
Just How Good Is The Oculus Rift?

Shamus Young | 16 Sep 2014 19:00
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Experienced Points Oculus Rift

Curious about this Oculus Rift stuff you keep hearing about? I talked about it back in April when I said it was a big deal, but now I own one and I've had a chance to experience it for myself.

First, some background: We're now two generations into the Oculus Rift development process. The first Rift had low resolution 1280x800 (only 640x800 pixels per eye!) and had no positional tracking. It had gyroscopes so it could tell when you tilted your head (just like your smartphone can tell which way you're holding it) so you could rotate your head in place. But if you moved your head (to the side, or forward, or just sat up straight) it had no way of knowing this. This meant that doing these things was intensely uncomfortable. If you absent-mindedly leaned forward, it would feel like the whole world moved with you, because the position of your eyes wasn't changing relative to the scenery. This would instantly make the average person feel sick. (I'm speaking from experience. I tried some demos aimed at DK1, and they are unpleasant.)

Earlier this year, the next version of the Rift came out (DK2) and it's a massive improvement. It has more resolution (1920x1080, or 960x1080 per eye) less latency (makes images appear with less blurring) and it can now track your head position using a little camera you stick on top of your monitor. This means you can lean, stand, or otherwise shift in your seat and have those changes reflected in the game world.

Both of these devices are aimed squarely at developers. I know a lot of consumers are thinking about getting a Rift just to see what the fuss is about, but I'll caution you that this product probably isn't ready for public use. I know the trend of Early Access games has greatly blurred the line between "Things which are already good and will be even better in the future" and "things still in early stages of development". But the Rift clearly falls into the latter category. We are literally watching people invent a new thing. (Or perhaps, finally finish inventing something we've been trying to build for twenty years.)

Sure, the device itself is pretty good, but as of right now the game library is little more than a collection of janky tech demos, half of which will make you ill because they weren't properly designed for the Rift. Lots of demos were made for DK1 and then abandoned. Other games were made for traditional screens and then retrofitted for the Rift, which rarely works out. There are precious few comfortable, well-designed demos and you can probably experience most of them in just a few hours. Is that really worth $350 plus shipping to you?

Just to be clear: Even when it's complete and the technology problems are ironed out the Rift is not going to take over the games industry, nor is it trying to. It's not going to replace consoles or traditional PC games. Like motion controls, rhythm games, or dance pad games, this is a new niche market for enthusiasts. It's radical, it's powerful, and it's very different, but it's not going to replace monitors anytime soon.

The trick about the Rift is that - being an experience - it's very hard to convey to people just how good it feels. (When things work right.)

The Rift is lighter than it looks. If you've seen a picture of someone with a Rift on their face then you know it looks like it's roughly the cubic volume of a GameCube, and I sort of assumed it would weigh about the same. But most of the internal space is foam and air. This empty space is needed between the lenses. It's basically taking a smartphone screen and warping the image so that it fills a majority of your field of view. This includes a good deal of overlap right in the center. (So that your left eye sees into the space to your right, and your right eye sees into the space on your left. You can't just cut an image in half and feed each part to an eyeball to get 3D, after all.) The optics to make this happen are complex and require some distance between the lenses. My guess is that even if you could shrink all the technology in the Rift down to Star Trek levels, the Rift itself probably wouldn't get much smaller, because you'd still need those lenses and the gaps between them.

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