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Oculus Rift goes HD: our first look at virtual reality, and virtual cinema, in 1080p

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Oculus VR is kicking off E3 with an upgrade to its virtual reality console, the Rift. By simply upgrading its optics from one off-the-shelf cellphone display to another, the company has upgraded the goggles to 1080p — and based on a few minutes of time with Rifts old and new, the upgrade makes a huge difference. Gone is what CEO Brendan Iribe called "the screen-door effect," and everything comes in much sharper and clearer. We played a game rendered in the newly integrated Unreal Engine 4, and from the snowflakes outside to the large, horned monster inside, details just pop in a way they never did before. It makes the world feel more immersive, more immediate.

The 1080p screen is split in two, so each eye sees a 960 x 1080 portrait display — Iribe said the company was worried about how the switch from landscape to portrait might affect the games, but that he's seen no issues. Nor have they had problems with the games created by the 10,000 developers who now have Oculus Rift dev kits — the SDK is built to scale its resolution, so Iribe said this is only the beginning. As cellphone displays get better, so does the Rift, and the company gets to outsource its R&D to Apple, Samsung, and the like.

Play 1080p games, and watch 1080p movies

With HD comes a number of other possibilities as well. Iribe strapped the Rift to my head and fired up the Man of Steel trailer, which I had watched in high definition in a theater. Oculus' Virtual Cinema makes it look and feel like you're in a movie theater, from the seats to the lights in the aisles. (No popcorn, though, a problem I told Iribe to remedy as soon as possible.) The possibilities here are limitless: Iribe noted the possibility of filling the movie theater with your Oculus friends and watching the movie together, or even moving seats to get the perfect perspective. It's an immersive, active experience, and it looks far better in 1080p than anything we've seen on the Rift before. When Oculus can put a 1080p screen on each eye, or go even higher-res than that, the Rift could pretty quickly keep you away from the movie theater — just strap the theater to your face.

Oculus won't say when the HD version of Rift will be available to developers, as it had apparently only just gotten the high-def prototype working ahead of E3's start. Neither would Iribe say if this is as high-res as the Rift will get before coming to customers. But based on what we've seen, it's a huge leap forward — not least because it's now more fun than ever to shoot a fireball in a snowstorm and just watch it go.