Oculus Rift ::: Hands On

A sceptic tries on the future.

As a proud owner of a Virtual Boy I consider this Oculus Rift a bit of a Johnny-come-lately. Yes, Nintendo’s doomed device may have been as portable as a house brick and incapable of being played without a stand to support it, but it gave your eyes a stereoscopic treat almost two-decades before Carmack began backing the Rift.

In stark black and red there is still to this day a wonderful quality to its vector graphics. Like lasers breaking the void each line sears itself onto your vision, impressing upon you a sense of depth never seen before in the mass market. From the low camera angles of Mario Tennis and Nester’s Funky Bowling, to the curiously top-down Vertical Force, the thin catalogue of games did what they could to sell the dream. Ultimately, however, when combined with a high price, an uncomfortable design, and migraine inducing visuals, the games were fighting an uphill battle.

During the intervening time we’ve seen little of virtual reality. Craig Charles’ Cyber Zone aside, it has troubled us little since the early 90s. Understandable given the quality of the graphics being offered at the time. Low polygon counts and flat textures may have been impressive at the advent of 3D but as the novelty wore off then so too did demand. Strapping yourself in and experiencing a blocky, misshapen world could quite readily happen on your own telly without the need for a helmet.

So much stock had been put into the fact that Virtual Reality was an outdated concept that despite the obvious leaps in technology I for one pooh-poohed the Oculus Rift when it was unveiled. Still imagining oversized and unshapely headwear the initial mutterings of interest from some of the industries most esteemed names did little for me. I struggled to see, in an age where 3D is failing to take off, that it was anything more than a novelty. I imagined the proximity of your face to the screen being off putting, so close to the light source as to be irritating; the fidelity of the screen being too low at such a distance; and the whole experience of controlling your own camera by motion tainted by that of Wii and Kinect.

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And yet when I strapped myself sceptically into Ether One’s tech demo at Rezzed most of these reservations melted away. Coupled with a supremely robust set of headphones I found myself transported from a bustling, noisy show floor and cocooned into a whole new world. The dark arena hall had given way to a verdant cliff top, a town sprawling to my left whilst the sea stretched out in front.

The sensation of being in the world, truly immersed in it, was staggering. It’s the type of thrill you only get once, like finding your first warp pipe in Super Mario Bros. or that moment where you crest the hill to see the vastness of Hyrule Field for the first time in Ocarina of Time. You’ll never get your first time again as your hobby finds a new and exciting way of portraying itself. All my previous concerns were forgotten and I strolled about, head tilting this way and that to drink in this new feeling.

The superlatives may seem laid on a little thick but I found myself taken in by the simplest things, though mainly those that demonstrated the power of 3D handled effectively. Positioning myself so that the light bloomed through the trees as I looked up or viewing a river running underneath a cracked wooden bridge, the view adjusting ever so finely as I moved my head about. Each brought the world into sharper relief than any Hollywood blockbuster that had hurled millions of dollars at the third dimension.

Whilst your head maybe encased and in control of your view, your hands still need a controller or keyboard to allow you to move around. A necessary evil helps ground you back in reality and indeed introduces bad habits. So used am I to controlling cameras with the right analogue stick on a standard joypad that I had to force myself to let it be and allow my head to swing the viewport around instead. Such a simple thing but I had to fight years of muscle memory to make my own head look about instead of my thumb.

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The demo itself was little more than an attractive background to wander through, showing little if anything of the game itself, and as time ticked by I began testing the boundaries of the headset. For one the input latency is negligible. There is no noticeable lag with swinging your head about and the response from the game, though no doubt this is all down to Ether One’s camera system but shows that the refresh rate is high enough to be of no hindrance.

Soon after this I happened to focus on something quite close up and began to notice the resolution. The headset being demoed was a 1280 x 800 development kit rather than the full 1080p consumer version and so you could see the tiny lines separating the pixels. Overall the image quality was absolutely fine but sadly like a dripping tap once you notice it it’s hard to ignore.

Finally, and most disconcertingly, I insisted on jumping down flights of stairs. I had heard people had become motion sick during their time on the demo but hadn’t yet felt anything nearing that and so tried to do the most nauseous inducing thing I could find to do. Whilst relatively untroubled the brain does protest slightly at being told by most senses you’re throwing yourself off a great height but then having the body stay perfectly still. I found it a curious sensation but nothing too unpleasant, though a good friend thought otherwise when they tried later on.

During the space of five minutes I went from a sceptic to a supporter. A large amount of preconceptions were built on a combination of outdated thoughts on virtual reality and my dislike for the use of 3D in modern cinema, but the Oculus Rift dispelled those worries. The all-encompassing feeling that I was in the world was incredible and offered me very little reason to draw me out of it. There were no borders on the edge of my vision, no tearing in the render, no flaky refresh rate; it does what it need to and that is to be invisible to the user.

As always with these things, concept is one thing and execution is another – just look at the Wii U. There is an ever growing list of parties supporting it from individual studios to engine manufacturers but each game will be its own challenge. Every dev will have to ensure that it’s balanced just right and that the vision swings just so with your head’s movements but for me that’s of little concern. There is a lot of momentum behind the Rift and as soon as the consumer sets go on pre-order then there’s a pretty fine chance I’ll be throwing some money at them.

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About James Thomas

I make my living as a programmer at a British games developer. In my spare time I try and spread myself between writing, gaming, drumming, goalkeeping, rolling dice and keeping my hair blue. Somewhere around that my wife fits in. Disclaimer: the views expressed are my own and do not neccessarily reflect those of my employer.