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Oculus Rift: deep inside the immersive, disorienting virtual reality gaming experience

Oculus Rift: deep inside the immersive, disorienting virtual reality gaming experience

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Oculus Rift Hero
Oculus Rift Hero

We just met with the team behind the Oculus Rift, which started out as a DIY project that quickly morphed into into a Kickstarter success story. Oculus is here at CES showing off the dev kit it plans to ship out to backers in March, and got a chance to play with near-final hardware and software and see what founder Palmer Luckey hopes will be the next big sea change in gaming.

The hardware is straightforward — but playing the Rift is anything but

The developer hardware we checked out still doesn't feel quite up to what you'd expect out of a shipping product, but it's a lot closer to that than what our own Ross Miller checked out this past summer. It's all pretty straightforward — there are two lenses in a ski mask-style head-mounted display that combine to form a 1280 x 800 display, just like before. Each eye sees 640 x 800 pixels and while that still sounds like a low resolution in 2013, you can't judge the product on that single spec alone. The rest of the hardware simply consists of a break-out control box you use to plug the Rift into your computer; it features DVI, HDMI, micro-USB and power.

While the hardware may be straightforward, the experience of using the Rift is anything but. Strapping on the Rift and stepping into that virtual, 3D world was a lot like seeing a 3D movie for the first time — it's initially a shock to your system. The Oculus team says that lag and latency in the final dev kit will be improved over what I tried, and that'll probably go a long way towards improving the experience. It certainly wasn't bad, just rather jarring. Being able to turn completely around in 360-degrees was another surprise — and a delight. Of course, in most games, you won't be looking all the way around, but the level of immersion is extremely high.

Oculus Rift virtual reality headset hands-on photos


In the demos I tried, the trickiest thing was deciding between using the right analog stick on the Xbox 360 controller to look around versus actually turning my head. While trying Unreal Tournament, the Oculus team told me that I'd have better luck if I actually looked in the direction of my enemies, making for a slightly tough adjustment period. And while exploring a snowy medieval town in the Epic Citadel tech demo, I probably bumped into the wall more times than I would have using a standard monitor and control scheme.

There's a definite adjustment period and learning curve

But the immersion trumps all, even despite the Rift's relatively low resolution. Walking into a church after being out in the open sky felt claustrophobic and enclosing, and the feeling of looking around a vast outdoor world while in reality sitting at a desk was both jarring and fascinating. There's going to be a definite adjustment period and learning curve for those diving into the world of the Oculus Rift, but those who manage to make the transition may find themselves getting lost in that world pretty quickly.

The story behind Oculus is almost as interesting as the Rift itself — founder Palmer Luckey spent several years developing his own VR headset because the options on the market just didn't meet what he was looking for, and he initially meant to sell it on Kickstarter as a disassembled, DIY kit. That all changed after ID Software's John Carmack heard about Luckey's project — Luckey actually let him borrow his headset back over the summer, and the buzz it generated turned Oculus Rift from a DIY project into something with much grander aspirations. To learn more about the genesis of Oculus, where the company goes from here, and a look at the Rift in action, check out our interview with Luckey and VP of Product Nate Mitchell.