Oculus Rift first impressions

Want to be immersed in a virtual world that only exists inside a computer? Have your own holodeck and experience the virtual reality scenes from the B-movie Lawnmower Man or The Matrix. Computers are getting faster and faster each year and while the Oculus Rift won't get you quite there yet, it's a great first step after years of feeling like the world totally forgot about VR. 

So what is the Oculus Rift like really?

I was one of the backers of the Kickstarter project, ordering one after about 5 seconds of careful consideration. Just this week the delivery guy finally brought a box to my door with the magical words "Oculus Rift Development Kit" on it. Upon opening the package I was surprised how professionally made everything looked. I was expecting duct tape and imperfections, instead I received a product which looks just as finished as anything you could buy from an electronics store. It comes in a sturdy plastic case that even had one of those booklets with little illustrations on how to put it together. 

The first question before plugging it in was would the device appear as a monitor, or do you push pixels to it only through some special API? Turns out it is a 1280 x 800 pixel monitor, with the left 640 x 800 pixels being for the left eye and the rest for the right eye. This has the cool benefit that if you go to a YouTube video made for the Rift, you can play them directly and see it in 3D on the device without any special player software, without the ability to turn your head though. Set-up was total plug & play.

It is very stable too. I am happy to report no crashes or other annoying problems after hours of running various demos with the device. It works as reliably as any monitor and has no issues with bad cable connections. It is a well-built rigid product that is also quite comfortable to wear. The connections required are a video cable, a power cable and USB. To avoid having three cables coming out from the device, there is a connector box so you only have one cable finally going into the head-mounted display. It works very well.

How does it look from the inside? Unfortunately, at this point until the resolution improves you can very clearly see huge pixels with dark gaps between them. However when running a demo that can run at a decent frame rate it becomes much less noticeable when moving your head around. The selling point of the Rift was never the resolution, but the wide field of view. In practical use it feels satisfyingly wide and creates a new sense of place.

The head tracking is very very good. You can point your head to things similar to the accuracy of a mouse pointer and there is no wobble or other odd movement. It feels natural. The biggest surprise after the first day of testing was realizing just how important head position tracking is. Before the Rift I was under the impression that stereo 3D is the most important single thing to make you feel immersed. But now after trying demos where I am able to look around, turn around or even turn my head sideways and have the picture naturally change to take into account my orientation, I feel it to be just as important along with the wide field of view.

Existing games not custom-built for the Rift do not work well. Getting stereo 3D out of some existing games is possible with a program called Vireio. I tried Half-Life 2, but it always felt like "something is off here" even after a lot of tweaking with Vireio settings. Half-Life 2 was ranked in the Vireio readme file as one of the best-supported titles. I was interested to try Mirror's Edge also, but after a few attempts failed to get it to work at all. What Vireio is attempting to do is of course very difficult, so any support they can provide to existing games is just a bonus.
The real fun is in custom Rift software. Since the device just came out not many are available yet. The best one that I would be showing to anyone first is the roller coaster demo. It is a well-made ride lasting about a minute of a roller coaster rolling on a track suspended in mid-air, going around castles. After a while of riding smoothly forward there is a sudden drop which elicits a strong reaction from many who try it.

It might be that instead of "games" it is better to think of Rift content as "experiences", as right now they are all about putting you in some place to experience some setting. In one you can walk around a house in Tuscany. Walk to the balcony and admire the views outside. Another lets you experience what it might be like to get your head chopped off by a guillotineThere are currently only a handful of experiences available, of these one being an actual game. 

Other things you can do is using the VR Player to play 360 degree video content. You can watch a concert or see what a train station in Tokyo is like while being able to turn your head around. This is a bit less impressive than it sounds, because such video content is only two dimensional. It is also possible to look around Google Street View images, but again only in 2D.

What does it feel like? It really does give a different feeling from just putting your head really close to a monitor thanks to the field of view and stereo 3D. When you move around at high speed even with the feeling of real acceleration of your body lacking, you still experience a slight sense of motion that you would not get from a 3D movie. Being able to look around and having a wide field of view seems to be enough to trick my brain into believing that we might really be moving here. 

Should you get one? Being a dev kit and not the final product, the Rift at this point is lacking in resolution and naturally in content. I would not recommend you invest your last savings into buying one, but if you are enthusiastic about VR and want to follow this potentially new field develop first-hand, I can recommend it.