There was a long wait for the first consumer headsets to appear since Oculus ignited the VR buzz with its Kickstarter back in 2012. The Oculus Rift, one of the three main consumer brands, didn’t have the start it may have liked not only with distribution issues but also the lack of motion controllers that both the Vive and the PSVR were sporting on their respective launches. But, finally, the playing field is level once more and the Touch controllers are, to say the least, a little bit special.
Entering the wondrous world of VR isn’t a cheap venture. Sony’s PSVR brings the more accessible headset to the table price-wise, but unless you’ve already got a high-end PC setup you’ll be emptying your wallet to gather the minimum specs for both the Rift and the Vive units. The Rift’s packaging resembles that of a highly-priced item thanks to marketing influences that are as clear as day. Just like opening a sleekly packaged Apple product, the Oculus box feels part of the event; an immaculate black matt lidded box with a fabric handle that feels like opening a chest full of shiny tech that you’ve most likely plundered without your partner’s knowledge. Then comes the gear itself, tightly packaged in its own compartments with a note tucked into the lid inviting you to get started.
Contents and Set-up
In the box, you’ll get the headset itself, the camera sensor, the Oculus remote, an Xbox One wireless gamepad and its respective USB receiver. There’s also a few smaller bits including a headphone removal tool, stickers and a lens cloth to keep things smudge and dust free. The Touch package provides two controllers with an extra sensor to aid tracking which we’ll talk more about later, but the first things that will strike you upon lifting the headset out of its compartment is the design and its weight. It’s difficult not to look silly wearing any of the headsets, but the Oculus has a slick, minimalistic design that feels great to hold and is surprisingly light – so light in fact I was never overly conscious of it being on my head and it never felt detracting from the experience.
The plastic materials are soft and the foam rims that fit to your face are comfortable. Although, I did find myself adjusting it periodically on longer play sessions to let my face breathe a little (and to avoid the red imprints) – ‘VR face’ is a thing now, don’t you know? You might also struggle a little if you have thick glasses, as there’s no current alternative to the shipped foam inserts but you’d imagine it won’t be long before Oculus and third-parties start developing alternatives.
The fit in general, though, is largely comfortable thanks to the well-designed head straps. The back piece of the headset has a spring mechanism that allows you to place the headset on without any difficulty and has the bonus of not having to adjust the straps once you’ve found a nice fit. The much-debated headphones are also a win in my book. Having something attached won’t suit those who’d prefer using their own expensive earphones, but the sound is great and I found it ultimately convenient to not have to worry about putting two different items on my head. The headphones sound great and they’re easily adjustable and removable, so no complaints there.
After reading much about the respective setup process’, especially that of the Vive, I was expecting the worst even with the apparently less-complex procedure of the Oculus. To my surprise the whole process was a breeze, and not particularly far removed from that of a typical console setup. Assuming that you’ve put together the equipment capable of runing the Oculus (why would you buy one if you hadn’t?) it becomes a simple process of plugging in the sensor into a USB3 port, then the headset via HDMI and another USB3. Once done it’s onto Oculus’ setup software that tests firstly if you have met the hardware requirements, then takes you through a few pages to confirm you have everything plugged in and positioned optimally. I was surprised how un-fussy the sensor was in determining a good position.
The additional Touch sensor took a little more thought, not because it wasn’t working correctly but because you’ll have a couple of experimental options if you’d like to try full 360 Room Scale setups. Initially I had the default ‘two at the front’ position but found there was some loss in tracking at certain angles. Moving to the diagonal setup, I found room-scale to work excellently despite not having the recommended 3 sensors. There’s the occasional drift so having a third would be ideal, but you should know that two are more than useable if your play space isn’t too big, I’m yet to have any real issues. Of-course if you’re only after a standing/seated experience the third will be even less necessary.
During the setup, you’ll be asked to define your play area by walking around your perimeter with your touch controller to mark it out. Again, the process is well explained and dead-zones in your sensor areas will turn the mapping red so you know to pull it in a little. Some games require bigger spaces than others but games will tell you the requirements before you buy them so you’re only getting what you can use. Overall I can’t fault the process and I was up and running with both the headset and controllers within 20 minutes or so, experimentation included.
Entering Virtual Reality
The 90Hz refresh rate with two OLED displays holding 2160 x 1200 resolution across them means the consumer version of Oculus’ headset is the most accomplished yet. If I’m going to be over critical then the field of view isn’t massive – you’ll feel like you’re looking through binoculars, god rays are particularly apparent in overly black screens and certain text can be hard to read. How much this bothers you will depend on the person wearing the set. For me, none of it mattered as the experience is simply like no other. Booting up for the first time into Oculus Home, their gaming store/library hub, I was already blown away. Head tracking is immaculate and is perhaps the key ingredient to making the VR experience work. Then watching through the Oculus Dreamdeck demos had me chuckling like a small child – I don’t think I’ve been so overwhelmed and amazed with a gaming device since I first leaped into Mario 64 and ran through its fully 3D world.
The refresh rate seems to be in a good place to prevent motion sickness. Undoubtedly, it’s another thing that will vary from person to person, but asides from an initial odd feeling of movement that my body wasn’t physically initiating, I’ve yet to feel any real motion sickness whatsoever, even in the more intense rated games and apps. Games like Lucky’s Tale will have little negative effect on most people and the vivid colours and striking design is perhaps the most suited to VR from a pure visual clarity perspective. I sat in the cockpit of the space sim, Elite: Dangerous, just rotating my head left and right, watching screens pop-up and admiring the surroundings. It’s a wonderful feeling being inside a game rather than looking in to it – it’s ultimately impossible to describe the immersion of VR. Saying I can’t put it into words may sound like I’m simply waxing-lyrical about the experience, but it’s meant literally. I can’t describe it to someone who hasn’t put a headset on, and I’ve tried several times with no success, believe me.
Oculus Rift: Touch Controllers
Early adopters have had a long wait for the much talked about Touch controllers, but they’re finally here and help put the Rift back in touch (pun intended) with its main competitors. Whilst the seated controller experiences are enjoyable, they’re only harnessing half of the experience that virtual reality provides and with the design of the controllers they’re perhaps the best way to reach out and touch new worlds.
The circular design hasn’t changed much since they were announced and both controllers have a menu button, 2 standard buttons (A,B/X,Y), two triggers and a thumb stick. Picking up the controller for the first time feels strange as it’s not something you’ll be used to. However, within minutes it’ll feel ultra-natural sitting inside your palm with buttons perfectly placed underneath each resting finger which the controllers cleverly utilise in the virtual world. Squeezing the central trigger, for instance, closes your hand in a VR; lift your thumb up off the pad and now you’re performing a ‘thumbs up’, lift your index finger off and your pointing – it’s a unique facet that you can’t do with the Vive or the PSVR controllers (at least right now) and is another level of immersion to aid games.
In regards to room-scale, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve had no problems running room-scale games off two sensors positioned diagonally, but certainly 3 would add another level of solidarity to the setup. Depending on your sensor positions, some users might need the third to make it work as intended. Oculus maintain that room-scale is experimental still at this stage, but from what I’ve gathered from putting it into practice, it’s more of a disclaimer to cover themselves as they work out any minor kinks. Tracking, just like the headset itself, is impeccable. I shook the controllers furiously in front of me and they stayed with me in VR all the way. The only time they seem to lose tracking slightly is when they’re very close together.
I genuinely love the aesthetic of the controllers in my hands and after a while they’ll just feel like an extension of your body. Grabbing a gun in Epic Games’ Bullet Train demo feels unnervingly accurate as you pull the trigger and then fling the gun at an incoming bad guy, whilst VR staples such as Job Simulator and The Lab all work great with the controllers, offering the same as you’d expect from the Vive handsets whilst grabbing and moving around in VR.
I never really knew what to expect after watching videos of other people experiencing virtual reality, all of which really don’t do it justice. VR is an unrivaled experience in gaming, one that surprised even my lofty hopes, and one that was only improved further once I had got the Touch controllers in my hands. I can’t compare it to the other two headsets from personal experience, but I prefer its understated design. The controllers, without doubt, offer the most unhampered and immersive way to involve your hands in the action at this moment in time.
Of course, it’s still part of a niche that’ll put considerable strain on your bank balance, and with the controllers it’s no cheaper than the pricey Vive. VR as a whole is still a fair distance away from migrating itself into the casual market wholehearted and remains something for only early-adopting enthusiasts to drool over despite increasing developer support and a strong library of games.
However, I can’t recommend the Oculus Rift enough. Whether you take the plunge and purchase your own or get an opportunity to test it with a friend or at an event, I have absolutely no doubt that the same giddy smile I had on my face will appear on yours. VR is still in its infancy, and now we all have the chance to start the same kind of journey that many of us enjoyed at the beginning of the console era. I guess that if there was one thing that drives the technology home for me, it’s that I’ll never be able to play Elite: Dangerous outside of VR again – the truth is, it just wouldn’t be the same anymore.