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Oculus Rift Review

Intro

I was in the fortunate position of being able to preorder an Oculus Rift so have had my hands on one for some time now. This is going to be somewhere between a review, impressions and hands on but due to VR being something of a controversial area, there are ground rules I’d like to lay down:

1: I haven’t used an HTC Vive, I haven’t used a PSVR, I haven’t used a Gear VR. This won’t be a fanboy argument of why one is greater than the other. While we’re on the subject, I haven’t tried the DK1 or DK2 either.

2: “VR is a fad, it’s going to die”: possibly, possibly not. Frankly it’s completely irrelevant when discussing an opinion of the actual device and experience itself, so I’m going to largely ignore this whole shit storm.

3: I bought the Rift and all software for it with my own money and my opinions are totally impartial.

4: The Oculus Rift is a VR headset made by the Oculus company, called the Rift. I realise that the boat has pretty much sailed at this point but the goddamn thing is called a Rift, not an Oculus.

So…

I absolutely love the Rift, but whatever you do, for the love of god don’t buy one.

Whilst I can honestly say that I think the Rift is an incredibly experience, that statement comes with an enormous list of caveats. It is undoubtedly one of the greatest pieces of technology I have ever used and quite probably is the single biggest leap forward I have ever experienced. If there is one thing that impresses more than anything else, it’s that this piece of technology actively fools parts of your brain that no other device like it has ever accessed. Not in an optical illusion way, not in a clever riddle or puzzle way, but in the sense that the Rift can override your conscious thoughts in order to make parts of your brain believe you are actually in a different place. It is an experience unlike anything else and for me it is a glimpse into the very future of our society.

So why not buy one immediately? Let’s make two things abundantly clear; this is the first proper VR headset, and this thing is colossally expensive.

To call the Rift a prototype would do it a massive injustice, but it is very much the first iteration of this technology. It has certain inherent limitations that should give hesitation to anyone thinking about buying one. The main issues are the lenses, the headset and the screen itself. If you’re thinking “isn’t that everything?” then you’d be right.

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Hardware and set up

Unboxing the rift is a great experience. Mostly because it comes in a really, really cool box. Granted, it’s an expensive box, and now that the rift no longer lives in it I’m not entirely sure what to do with the damn thing but it’s still my all time favourite box. Opening the box of wonder there is a surprising amount of stuff included. Firstly is the sensor, which is sleek and nice enough for what is effectively a matt black pole with a film canister on top. There is a remote which is minimalist and perfectly functional and an Xbox One controller. I am a huge fan of the X1 controller but I think at this stage people probably know where they stand with it. I think bundling the most widely used PC controller was probably a smart move, but ultimately if VR is here to stay then I think we can all agree it’s going to be more about Touch controllers, tracking or whatever is yet to be invented. Finally there is a branded cleaning cloth and a small plastic screwdriver to remove the headphones without scratching the plastic which are both nice touches.

The headset itself of the rift is impressively light and comfortable to wear for long periods. The spring loaded head strap is very clever and makes putting on and taking off very easy. The cable is a minor annoyance but an understandable one and I think at this stage to suggest it should be wireless (as some have) is pretty naïve. The headphones are comfortable and the sound quality is very impressive, particularly the directional audio. From what I’ve seen it looks more comfortable than the Vive and it’s certainly a more attractive piece of kit. The overall impression screams high quality piece of tech.

Loading up the Rift for the first time you will see a safety warning in white text against a black background. This immediately highlights one of the Rifts problems: the ‘god ray’ effect that comes from white light. It’s a distraction and an annoyance, but in fairness a relatively minor one. It is very noticeable when white is displayed against black, so opening splash screens tend to be a culprit. It rarely affected my actual playing, but developers would do well to try and minimise the effect where possible. Games like Edge of Darkness weren’t affected as the world was entirely white for large sections for example.

I don’t wear glasses or contacts, but a number of friends who do have all been surprised that it isn’t adjustable for different visual requirements. Due to the shape of the lenses I am sure this is much more difficult than it sounds, but it’s a valid point. I have also seen people manage with glasses without issue, but I have seen some people really struggle, particularly taking the Rift on and off.

Rift setup.png

Setup is a very sleek experience that has the fingerprints of Facebook all over it.

One issue with the lenses is that they focus very well on what is directly in front of you but there is some blurring around the edges. Often this isn’t an issue as you can just move your head, but on pages of static text (the lens spacing instruction screen is a great example of this) the edges are noticeably more blurry. It’s an effect similar to watching a 3D film in Imax – unless you’re sat in the perfect seat in the middle of the screen, the 3D becomes blurred around the edges of your view. Obviously, one of the benefits of VR is you can move your head to focus on whatever you want, which is fine but not how our eyes work in real life.

The headset itself does get very hot, particularly on a warm day. This can cause the lenses to fog up and this seems worse if glasses are worn. The heat is the single most uncomfortable aspect of the rift, and I suspect that in future versions we may see some kind of micro fan or perhaps different face inserts for different people. We can only hope that different fittings or face inserts can alleviate “Oculus Face” – the oval imprint around your eyes left by the Rift.

Setting up the Oculus Rift is a pleasingly straightforward system. The whole thing is sleek and frankly has the whiff of Facebook about it. Recent updates have also made things even easier. The thing seems to need a reference point to know what height it is at – initially this meant putting it on a table and measuring the distance from the ground. Oculus now seem to have realised that you can just input your height and go from there. Thankfully this seems to be a one time process as swapping the Rift to friends who are taller or shorter than me doesn’t make any difference. That said whilst a lot of games give you the option of resetting the default view others (notably Oculus Dreamdeck – effectively the Oculus show reel) don’t.

 

Performance

Onto the screen, the heart of the Oculus Rift and also its greatest weakness. IF you take away all the bells and whistles at the end of the day the Rift is just strapping a fancy screen onto your face. As such this is by far the single most important component within it. I understand that the CV1 screen is a dramatic improvement from the development kits but unfortunately it is far from perfect. I have read reviews that state that the screen door effect is gone, and this is not true. I can believe it is improved, but there are times when it is very noticeable.

In order to get into the detail of the screen, we need to discuss its most important attribute – resolution. Really, this dominates the argument about whether to buy any VR headset at this time. Apologies if you’re not a fan of pixel counts – this might get a tad boring.

The Rift screen runs at 2160 x 1200 pixels, however in order to produce a 3D image, you need to produce two slightly different images – effectively one individual screen for each eye. As a result the effective resolution is half of the screen, or 1080 x 1200 pixels. Put another way, the world around you doesn’t get blurrier if you close one eye and neither does the Rift.

So let’s put that 1080 x 1200 resolution in context. Before flatscreens and HD, TVs ran at 480p or 640 x 480 pixels. The early HD TVs often ran at 720p or 1280 x 720 pixels, but these days HD is generally considered to be 1080p, or 1920×1080 pixels, and this is the quality of Blu-ray. We are now seeing the next wave of resolution upgrades, as people migrate to 4K or UHD TVs. The resolutions here can get a little murky but for the sake of argument it is usually 3840 x 2160.

Now resolution is important because as we all know if you take a digital photo and repeatedly zoom in, it becomes a blocky mess. The resolution is essentially how long it will take to become a blocky mess. Not that there is anything wrong with things being blocky – the original Doom ran at 320 x 200 pixels, and is a blocky masterpiece, and the new Doom can run at anything up to 4K.

See the image below for a comparison of the various sizes of different screens:

Oculus Rift image sizes

Each colour here represents the size of different images, assuming every pixel is the same size. You can see that the effective resolution is quite low, and also a slightly odd shape. It also shows how much harder a computer would have to work to give 4K VR.

Now if you regularly follow any kind of gaming outlet like IGN etc you will know that the resolution of games on the Xbox One and PS4 has been a topic of much interest and controversy. If you don’t then in short – both consoles have struggled to consistently hit 1080p (1920 x 1080), at 60 frames per second (fps). Sometimes the resolution has had to be dropped, sometimes the frame rate has had to be dropped to 30 frames per second, and this is from the two most powerful consoles currently in the world. Why? Because in order to make a game the graphics card (GPU) has to tell your TV what every single pixel should look like. For 1080p at 60 frames per second, this means the graphics card is working out and sending a signal for 124,416,000 individual pixels every single second. That’s a lot of work for a console in a cut throat market where cost is king, and the GPU is simply not powerful enough in either machine to consistently hit 1080p60fps with cutting edge graphics.

So what does this mean for the Rift? Well the Rift is running at a slightly unusual resolution (2160 x 1200), which is higher than a 1080p HD TV. High resolution means more work for your GPU. Also, the 3D effect means that although the screen is running at a high resolution (2160 x 1200), the effective resolution is only half that, so what you’re seeing is actually slightly on the low side (1080 x 1200). To summarise – and this is a truly key point for the future of VR – all VR is running at a high resolution, and high resolutions need computing power, but in practice the end result looks like a lower overall resolution.

Now, to make matters worse the Oculus Rift is also running at 90 frames per second. To put this in context most Xbox 360/PS3 games ran at 30fps, and a lot of X1/PS4 games also use 30fps but there is a move towards 60fps as it produces a sharper, smoother picture and makes games feel quicker (although arguably a bit less “cinematic” as films run at 24fps).

It is imperative that the Rift frame rate is kept at this high rate of 90fps. In an action game, the designers can set how quickly the camera can turn, however with the Rift the camera is essentially your head. When the rate drops far enough below 90fps it causes a mismatch between moving your head and the image your eyes see, which is going to have people puking down themselves very quickly. Every frame rendered requires work by your graphics card, and it stands to logic that 90fps is going to require more power than 60fps.

So back to practicalities: in order to run the Rift our computer is has to run an unusually high frame rate at a high resolution, with the added processing demands of figuring out how to make a correct 3D image, all whilst tracking your head ducking and twisting around and figuring out what image it should be displaying. What this translated to was a minimum spec of a GTX 970 at launch, or to put it another way, a proper gaming PC that has had money invested into it. Frankly I was surprised it wasn’t higher.

So immediately the barrier to entry from a computer standpoint is very high, not even considering the cost of the Rift itself. This is not a device anyone is going to casually pick up on a trip to the shops.

So with all this processing power required to drive 90 frames per second and a resolution that is greater than 1080p, as a user, you are only getting an effective experience of 1080 x 1200. Matters are also slightly compounded by the fact that the Rift has a viewing angle of 110°, so you are effectively taking this low resolution image, and blowing it up to the size of a room which as we said earlier results in a blocky, blurry mess.

So how does it look? The best way to find out is to load up Oculus Dreamdeck and find out, and the short answer is INCREDIBLE.

There is something in the combination of the high frame rate, 3D, the slight blurring around the edges produced by the lenses and the sense of immersion that means that when the Rift is firing on all cylinders it produces without question the greatest looking graphics I have ever seen. My personal favourite is to load up the Oculus produced Farlands and warp to your space ship – everything about it is incredible, with every surface having a texture and reality to it that is staggering. Load up Assetto Corsa and it is like being in a real race car, with actual carbon fibre around you.

This is not just good graphics either. Take the Rift off and see what is being shown on your monitor and you’ll be baffled by how poor it looks. Put the Rift back on and suddenly you’re back in another world.

These moments are where the Rift shines, this is where the magic shows. Reach out your hand to touch something and the surprise felt when you don’t touch the very real object you can see in front of you is incredible. Play something with movement and feel your legs shift to accommodate the movement you can see happening around you. Put a monster in front of people and watch them recoil in genuine fear, or put them on the ledge of a tail building and they will cower in fright.

I cannot state this strongly enough but this is a piece of technology that is actually fooling your senses into thinking that you are somewhere else entirely. I haven’t experienced anything like it before and it is utterly intoxicating. Videos don’t do it justice because the Rift doesn’t show you something like a video does, it puts you in a place.

I try and get as many people as I possibly can to try the Rift and everyone agrees that it’s the most brilliant thing they’ve ever tried and is 100% going to be the technology of choice in the future.

Like any good magic trick, the Rift is a simple trick done very well. It’s still a screen strapped to your face. Unfortunately just like any magic trick, if it’s done badly, the entire illusion comes crashing down. The Rift has problems. Big ones.

 

Problems

Play Oculus Dreamdeck, Farlands, Lucky’s Tale or any of the other Oculus studio games and one thing unites them all and that is the area that they place objects in the game world. This is the problem with the Rift, there is a virtual area around you of perhaps 6 feet in which thinks look incredible, but beyond this is a law of diminishing returns. Play Adr1ft and ravel a long corridor – floating debris starts out blocky and unrecognisable before becoming clear. Alternatively load up virtual desktop, unless it’s uncomfortably close to your face text is hard to read. Try loading one of the demonstration videos such as a 360 degree performance of the Lion King and it is like watching a VHS.

The sheer graphical demand of the Rift causes other problems as well. Playing Edge of Nowhere you might be climbing a cliff face, marvelling at the scale of the drop below you, looking nervously around for monsters. Suddenly, there is an avalanche, and a collection of boulders from a passing PS1 game tumble around your character.

It’s not all bad, but the graphics limitations mean developers have to be clever in how they use assets. Add this to the god rays, movement tracking issues and the general difficulties of game design and it’s very easy to be taken out of the experience be back to just a dickhead sat in your own home wearing a ridiculous headset.

There is also the ever present threat of nausea. I have spoken to people online who are very angry that the movement method of choice in VR seems to be teleportation, but from my experiences everyone who uses is experiences nausea when the viewpoint starts to be moved around. I have also had reports of difficulty driving and dizziness that can last days. There is also a very strange feeling after a prolonged period in VR of coming back to reality; it’s hard to put a finger on it but things can just feel… off.

These feelings of nausea definitely affected my first hours with the Rift and to be fair things have improved. I hadn’t played it for a while but going back things were trickier again. I can see this being a non issue with prolonged use but it’s certainly a barrier to entry. Even after many hours in the Rift I can still try certain games and feel incredibly unwell incredibly quickly.

A lot has also been written about the control inputs. The Rift remote is a piece of cake to use but hardly the most powerful weapon ever wielded by a geek. The X1 controller is better, but some may still find it hard to use effectively blindfolded. I can touch type without looking but I found using a keyboard very difficult.

This question will only really be answered once the Oculus Touch arrives, but I think it’s fair to say that an intuitive control method is currently missing. This is a major advantage of the HTC Vive with its wands at the present time. Personally I prefer the look of the Oculus Touch and that was a major swaying factor. I can see having the Oculus Touch will allow developers much greater freedom in how they design games as overall the VR environment will become a much easier place to interact with. Whether the decision to release them separately will split the market remains to be seen but it is a worry.

The lack of truly engaging controls has had a big impact though. I love the Xbox controller but it isn’t as widely used as I would like. Suffice to say that at the moment the Oculus Rift’s highlights are very much more experiences that you take in, rather than take part in.

 

Conclusion

Being the owner of an Oculus Rift I occasionally find the time to make myself look like a fecking idiot for a few hours. Does occasional use justify the price? No. Does the equipment have issues? Yes.

It’s a phenomenal achievement for what it is – the tracking, the view, the sense of immersion. I really have to applaud Oculus for having the foresight and acumen to create this as a device. Yes, I know that $2billion went in from Facebook, and yes, I know that Palmer Lucky has made some, well, questionable moves in recent months. None of that changes what the Rift actually is: the single most impressive piece of tech that I have ever demoed.

However I really do have to stop short of a full blown endorsement. The price is still incredibly high, and that has to be taken into consideration. The quality software is just not there, the input methods still feel limited and the actual experience itself is hampered by the resolution which in terms cripples the experiences that developers can put into the Rift.

As an example, try playing Esper. It’s a fun little 70s styled puzzle game. You start the game sat in a a floating chair and amusingly never move out of it. You warp from place to place solving puzzles presented roughly 6 feet in front of you. The 70s theme is presented in bold colours and simple angular shapes. It’s all very well done and very entertaining. Unfortunately, you get the feeling that Rift will keep spawning games like this because they are easy and they hide all the limitations of the hardware.

I am being a tad unkind – Assetto Corsa is phenomenal, and Eve Valkyrie proves that games in cockpits work very well (nausea aside).

So if I were you I would do whatever you can to try a Rift, you won’t regret it. I would just stop short of buying one for now.

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