Like many of you, I had heard the hype about the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, the big names who are backing the device, and the successful Kickstarter that funded its further development. Having seen how awful other attempts at VR have been over the years, I was both skeptical and excited to give it a try myself. When I found out the Oculus guys would be exhibiting at a pre-CES press event that I attend each year, I made a mental note to go talk with them and see if I could try the headset for myself.
Turns out that was more difficult that you might think, because they were swamped by whole teams of press bearing microphones and giant cameras for most of the evening. I kept coming back, though, and eventually, as the event was ending, I found a quick opening and was able to slip on the Rift VR headset myself.
As a veteran of other 3D and virtual reality display schemes, I was in for several surprises.
The first one was simply the fact that I could wear the headset comfortably over my glasses. The big, foam-and-rubber ring around the Rift encompassed my prescription frame and sealed up fine without pushing it into my face. That was something new.
My surprise over that fact was soon swept away by what my eyes took in as soon as the headset was secured. Immediately, I was plunged into an immersive environment with a true and robust sense of depth, with none of the flickering or momentary disorientation and focus problems associated with most stereoscopic 3D schemes. The depth was there immediately, and I soaked in the tangible sense of reality as the Oculus guys explained that they had built in much more separation than most stereo display systems. The result is that objects in the virtual world—in this case, an Unreal engine-based demo called "Epic Citadel"—look like real, three-dimensional objects, not just a cardboard-cutout knight standing in front of a cardboard-cutout flag, as in most stereo display schemes. Having a truly separate image for each eye allows for more depth, which works wonders.
Depth is only part of the experience, though. Much of the magic came from the fact that the headset was tracking even the subtlest movements of my enormous noggin and adjusting the field of view to compensate. You can look side to side, look up, look down, even bend backwards and sideways to look at the sky over your shoulder, and you’ll see the proper portion of the game world in front of you. If you’ve tried VR headsets that attempt this feat in the past, you’d rightly be skeptical about this aspect of the experience. The thing is, the Rift tracks your movements so quickly and fluidly that it actually works, like gangbusters, tricking your brain into accepting its alternate reality.
The combination of depth and fluid head tracking is a potent cocktail, one that gave me a bit of a buzz and a sense of elation, either over the possibilities of such technology or because my visual subsystem was being fooled into releasing crazy endorphins. Maybe both. The Oculus dudes shoved a gamepad into my hands and encouraged me to "walk" around in the game world, taking in the sights. Immediately, I decided that the texture-mapped stone walls in the environment needed some help via POM or tessellation—they looked too flat as they were. I made my way into the demo’s gothic-style cathedral and found myself transfixed by the stone columns and arches reflected in its marble floor; the mix of depth and not-depth was entirely correct and truly stunning.
Even with the show floor buzzing around me, I was immersed. Heck, I was only vaguely distracted by one of the Oculus guys telling another a charming story about John Carmack’s hilariously earnest humility in requesting a new strap when the one on his headset broke.
I wandered around the game world further, for maybe five minutes or so, becoming increasingly aware that I was probably taking time away from others who were waiting in line behind me. As I finally, reluctantly slipped off the goggles, the sense of elation peaked, capped by a realization that I blurted out to the Oculus guys: "I could keep doing this for… hours." Not only does the Rift provide a sense of reality unlike anything else, but it’s so comfortable and convincing that I wanted to remain in the virtual space and had no sense of fatigue from having been there.
For me, this was the highlight of CES—of perhaps the last several years’ worth of CES attendance, one of those moments when you see something truly new and astonishing and cool. Of course, I’m happy to see that the Oculus guys have the open ecosystem of PC gaming supporting them in various ways, from the endorsements by big-name developers to the giant Nvidia logo in their display booth to the scores of Kickstarter supporters.
The Rift is still a work in progress. Although I’ve heard the claim that the "effective resolution" of the display is extremely high since you can move your head anywhere and see a "portion" of the total "image" being shown, the reality is that the headset would benefit from higher pixel density and perhaps better color reproduction, too. I’ve heard that the Rift makes some folks feel sick, still, and needs even quicker responses to overcome that drawback. And the headsets up for pre-order on the Oculus website are simply part of a developer kit. There’s very little content geared for the Rift at present, and those first headsets will hopefully help developers begin to rectify that situation. The consumer products will have to come later.
Still, if you have a chance to try a Rift headset for yourself, do not pass it up. When you peer into it, you’ll be seeing the future, and you’ll come away convinced that it looks pretty darned astounding.