While the Microsoft world is all a-buzz with excitement about the increasingly inaccurately named ‘Mixed Reality’ headsets, those who have perhaps been burned a little too often by Microsoft’s habit of cancelling consumer hardware beloved by the community might want to take a look at the 2-year-old granddaddy of PC-based VR: The Oculus Rift.
Launched in March 2016 (although key developers were seeded with kits back in 2014 following a successful Kickstarter campaign) the Rift consists of a headset with twin 1080 x 1200 OLED panels running at 90 Hz, integrated 3D headphones and a 110-degree field of view. Coupled with Constellation tracking sensors and Touch controllers, the Rift allows a user to enter an immersive virtual world.
In The Box
Now down to £399 (perhaps due to competition from the Microsoft contingent or possibly in advance of a new product for 2018) the Rift arrives in an attractive, briefcase-sized box containing the headset, 2 Constellation sensors and 2 Touch controllers. And a polishing cloth for the lenses within the headset. Not included in the box is the PC you will need to run Oculus Rift games and experiences. For that you will need at least an Intel Core i3-6100 with 8GB RAM and a NVIDIA GTX 1050Ti or similar. I repurposed a home theatre PC containing a Core i7, plugged in a low profile and relatively inexpensive Gigabyte GTX 1050Ti card and was good to go.
As with most software over recent years, Oculus requires a substantial download (over 1GB) before installation. Once downloaded, the setup proceeds simply enough, with instructions first to plug in the headset (requiring a full-sized HDMI 1.3 port and a USB 3.0 socket) and then the Constellation sensors (2 more USB 3.0 sockets) before sticking the included batteries into the Touch controllers and checking everything is communicating. This is not something for the cable-phobic, and indeed the headset cables can be an issue in some of the more active VR experiences.
Once the Rift is connected, Oculus’s guardian system must be configured. This consists of pacing out a safe ‘play area’ in front of the sensors, which displays a blue grid over the player’s vision if the controllers are being flailed around toward places where they shouldn’t. This stopped me knocking a hole through the wall during a particularly taxing bit of jet-packery in Lone Echo, but did not prevent me punching the ceiling while leaping for a ledge in The Climb.
Following a successful set-up, the first of the free bits of content fires up. This is where the user is trained in operating the controllers, learning techniques to grip, point and wave with the aid of a cute robot in a virtual motorhome that looks like a cross between Short Circuit (which I think Oculus were going for) and Breaking Bad (which I suspect they were not).
The headset is easily adjusted and fits well. Even after a few hours of usage, I didn’t feel any discomfort. The distance between the two lenses has some scope for adjustment although wearers of spectacles should exercise a little caution; the Rift is approximately 150mm wide, 60mm tall and 50mm deep at the deepest point from the lens to the face padding. If possible, it would be worth popping out to a retailer to try before you buy.
Once fitted on the user’s head, the Oculus software ‘wakes’ automatically and displays the ‘hub’ environment from where options can be selected. Unfortunately, it is not possible to wander around in the same way as the Microsoft cliff top house, but then interactivity is not really the name of the game at this point. Think of this more as an Xbox dashboard or similar, from where games and experiences can be launched, multiplayer contacts managed, and purchases made. Purchasing new content can occasionally be a little maddening, since some software vendors require the Oculus user to remove the headset and press some buttons in Windows to complete the transaction.
Oculus thoughtfully provides three categories to gauge the likelihood that a title is going to make a player nauseous. These start at Comfort, where there is limited interaction and a player does little more than look around while a scene gently unfolds around them. Moderate, where things move a little faster and there is likely to be more interaction required from the player and finally Intense, which could well upset anyone with a sensitive inner-ear. Personally, I have not experienced any nausea in any of the Rift’s worlds, although a few flying games have left me with an uneasy feeling of vertigo (which, to be fair, may have been the point).
The Rift is well supported with a large library of games ranging from being free to costing £49.99. Demo versions of games don’t really exist, and the price or star rating isn’t a good indicator of quality – I found some expensive games quite inferior to others that were free or nearly so. Fortunately, Oculus has an effective and rapid refund system meaning that downloading something and finding it is terrible is only an inconvenience rather than a wallet-crushing disappointment. It is also important to note the requirements of games in the library – the Rift originally shipped with an Xbox controller and many older games are optimised for this set-up rather than the Touch controllers. In terms of performance, I didn’t notice any problems running with my base-level GTX 1050Ti, even with newer games such as Lone Echo.
It is also worth noting that Oculus has created a number of good quality free titles itself, with supernatural gun slinging game Dead and Buried and the mayhem of Robo Recall worthy of note. The kid-friendly cartoon imagery of Lucky’s Tale should also be a part of every Rift owner’s library.
Just For Games?
While Microsoft’s MR headsets are pitched toward productivity as well as entertainment, the Rift is geared towards gaming and experiences. A few creativity titles such as Quill or Medium are a great introduction to virtual sculpting or 3D painting, but productivity is something the Rift does not do well. There are several Virtual desktop applications, but most (if not all) leave the user feeling as though they would be better removing the headset and switching to a monitor. The same goes for video – recorded 360-degree video is usually of a quality that reminds one of YouTube circa 2008, and while Movie Theatre applications exist, watching a 2D movie through the headset is a dispiriting experience that will leave the user reaching for a TV remote.
If you have a PC with enough horsepower, and the burgeoning VR scene is of interest, then the recent price drop makes the Oculus Rift an attractive option. At £399, it is not yet down to impulse purchase levels and I would suggest taking one for a demonstration spin before parting with cash. Indeed, I was a bit of a VR sceptic myself until I spent some time with the Rift and its nearest competitor, the HTC Vive. If you are looking for a headset with productivity pretensions, then one of the Microsoft devices might be a better bet since the Rift is front and centre entertainment-based, but for VR fun the Rift is hard to beat. Once you’ve swung yourself through a space station in orbit around the virtual Saturn of Lone Echo, going back to ‘normal’ games is a bit of a wrench.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a virtual space station to find. I seem to have floated away…