Virtual Reality is
Always almost here
By Adi Robertson | Photography by James Bareham
For a long time, the hopes and dreams of many virtual reality fans could be summed up with two words: Oculus Rift. Helped by the rise of cheap smartphone displays, Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey took a technology that most people considered a retro curiosity and convinced them that it could change the world. The Rift let you skydive without a parachute. It helped artists show the world through another person’s eyes. It simulated beheading. It put you in fictional settings that ranged from kaiju-fighting robots to Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment.
And then, slowly, the Rift got company — from competition like the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR, as well as totally new VR categories like Google Cardboard and Oculus’ own mobile Gear VR headset. Consumer virtual reality went from a gaming peripheral to an all-purpose entertainment device, and then to the next great evolution in computing. While "Oculus Rift" was no longer a synonym for "virtual reality," Oculus remained a central player, especially after Facebook purchased it for an estimated $2 billion.
There was just one problem: nobody knew what the Rift would look like, or when it would come out. Luckey and the rest of Oculus’ leadership were adamant about not making promises they couldn’t keep, or delivering an undercooked product — two things that doomed consumer virtual reality decades ago. But after nearly four years, the finished Oculus Rift has shipped to its very first group of customers, and it’s time to see whether the headset that started it all is still pushing the cutting edge of virtual reality.
Oculus rarely brags about its industrial design, but one of the best things it’s done is make something so stereotypically geeky look (relatively) natural. The $599 consumer Rift is full of clever and thoughtful touches, starting with the delightfully soft rubberized carrying case it ships in, which makes the whole thing feel like a cyberpunk hacker’s console. The all-black headset is downright understated by gaming hardware standards, with a front of smooth rubber, sides coated in coarse cloth, and lenses surrounded by a web of lycra. It’s tethered to a PC by a single wire, which runs out your left temple and along one of the adjustable side straps. William Gibson’s best-known foray into virtual reality might be Neuromancer, but the Rift feels more like something from his design-obsessed novel Pattern Recognition — it’s the kind of minimalist product that its brand-allergic, coolhunting protagonist Cayce Pollard might approve of.
Getting the Rift to fit right can prove elusive at first. While there’s a small focus knob at the bottom, a lot of the screen’s clarity depends on precisely how it’s angled toward your eyes, and it’s easy to give yourself a headache by strapping it as tightly as possible to keep the best fit. But once you get used to wearing it, the headset feels lighter and more comfortable than most of its competition, sealing against your face with a firm but pliable ring of foam. Since I have yet to break a sweat in the Rift, I can’t say how easy it is to clean, but the ring is removable and replaceable — although there’s no spare included. I also don’t have to deal with wearing glasses, but my Verge colleagues who do have had a positive response — they could either fit the headset over moderately-sized frames or, depending on their prescription, get the screen in focus without them.
Along with a cylindrical black tracking camera on a slender 8-inch stand, the Rift comes with two accessories: an Xbox One gamepad and a small, simple device called the Oculus Remote. Unlike Sony and HTC, Oculus isn’t launching the Rift with a full controller of its own, since its Oculus Touch hardware will arrive in the second half of this year. For now, the chunky and colorful Xbox gamepad seems slightly out of place alongside the sleek Rift design. The oval-shaped black remote, by contrast, fits right in, although its construction doesn’t feel as solid as the rest of the system.
The Rift is something I’d be happy to have in my living room, and compared to the developer-focused Oculus devices of years past, it’s a breeze to set up. The 4-meter headset tether ends with one USB and one HDMI port, and the tracking camera is plugged in with its own USB cable — there’s no external power cable or controller box for either piece. You’ll just download Oculus’ Windows app and run through a short, though descriptive, setup checklist before getting into VR. Granted, getting to this point requires having a powerful gaming desktop, which can produce plenty of glitches on its own. And since most PCs have only one HDMI port, you’ll need to use a different connection for your monitor, an extra and not totally intuitive step for many people. For the most part, though, it’s as easy as I can imagine installing a totally new kind of computer hardware to be.
None of this matters if the view from inside the Rift is no good — and fortunately, it holds up. The headset contains a pair of lenses, a gyroscope and accelerometer, a pair of decent-quality removable earphones, and two 1200 x 1080 screens. The image they produce is bright and relatively clear (although it still has a bit of the graininess that almost all VR headsets struggle with), and the overall resolution is about the same as the single-screened Gear VR. Any bright lights in the center of the virtual world sometimes reflect what looks like a lens flare around the edges of your vision, but it’s minimally distracting. The Rift’s field of view doesn’t seem better than previous versions, but it’s wide enough to give you a decent amount of peripheral vision. There’s almost no visible latency; as long as you stay within sight of the camera, it mirrors your head movement precisely, even when you turn completely around.
The Rift’s single-tracking camera doesn’t give you as much space to move around in as the "room-scale" HTC Vive or a two-camera Oculus Touch setup, but it supports a few steps in any direction; I measured a functional square of space around six and a half feet wide and four and a half deep. The biggest problem is that it’s impossible to tell where that space ends until you step outside it, causing a sickening jerk as the world stops responding to your motion. Right now, it’s not particularly noticeable, because almost none of the Rift launch titles ask you to move. A few make sense standing up, like the diorama-like tower defense game Defense Grid 2, but the vast majority seem intended to play in a stationary chair, looking straight forward with occasional turns of the head.
The result is a lot of games where VR feels like an addition, not a transformation. Most of the first-person experiences could translate to flat screens without much trouble, and some — like space exploration game Adrift — are already coming to both VR and flatscreen platforms like PC and PlayStation 4. The plethora of third-person action games like Lucky’s Tale might need to be redesigned slightly for players who can’t lean over the environments, but they’re still close adaptations of established formats. The titles that feel most clearly designed for virtual reality were early experiments that came to Gear VR before the consumer Rift. That includes Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, which takes advantage of a headset’s isolating effects, and Darknet, whose sprawling puzzle maps would look painfully cramped on a smaller screen.
In some cases, VR still fills genuine gaps in a familiar experience. CCP’s EVE: Valkyrie could certainly have been developed as a standard space-fighting game, a genre whose controls usually confound me. But somehow, being able to see the cockpit all around me makes it easier to understand how my ship should move, and using the Rift’s head tracking to fire missiles feels much better than pointing a joystick. Racing or flying simulations aren’t things that could only be done in VR, but it’s arguably the best place for them.
Conversely, VR-friendly design occasionally hampers a game. Chronos, a beautiful fantasy game that’s become one of my favorite Rift launch titles, uses the same combat mechanics as Dark Souls. Unlike Dark Souls, the camera moves between fixed angles for each area instead of directly following the player. This gives you a perfect view of its beautiful environments, and it cuts the risk of motion sickness to almost zero. But it also means that large enemies can block your view of the protagonist, and the camera will disorientingly pop to a completely different location if you move too far during a battle.
The ultimate goal for VR gaming, though, is to get to a point where we’re talking about experiences instead of the technology that enables them. And the Rift’s launch is the first time I’ve played anything that could rival a decently made non-VR computer game for polish and scope. Having high-quality hardware to play with has helped make this possible — nothing is fun if you can’t see the images clearly and get sick after half an hour, two common problems with the very first Rift development kits. So has the fact that developers now stand some chance of making money off their work. Whatever the exact confluence of factors, Chronos and EVE: Valkyrie are more than just good picks if you happen to have a VR headset. If you like flying or fighting in video games, they’ll make you want a VR headset so you can play them — maybe not badly enough to spend $600, but it’s a start.
Beyond that, it may take some time to make the Rift’s virtual world more coherent and interesting. The main headset menu exists in a stark modernist room with a rumpled and totally incongruous carpet in the middle, a weird bit of skeuomorphism that’s just substantial enough to feel like it ought to be personalizable. Instead, there are only flat icons for a store, a library, and a list of friends that can join you in EVE: Valkyrie or other multiplayer titles. If you’re not interested in playing games, you can experience a few interactive short films on the Rift, like Oculus’ Lost or Penrose’s The Rose and I. Virtual reality studio Jaunt has an app, and Oculus has its own photo and video tools, which play both VR and non-VR files from your PC or sources like Twitch and Facebook. But the Rift doesn’t seem to have imported the Gear VR’s various non-gaming social experiences, its VR versions of Netflix and Hulu, or its large collection of 360-degree video apps. A feature that would have allowed Xbox One owners to stream non-VR console games to the headset, promised last year, also won’t be live at launch.
Whatever else you can do, there’s no doubt that games like EVE: Valkyrie and Chronos provide the headset’s most immersive moments. When we talk about "immersion" in VR, we’re often talking about two separate effects. The first is a sense of realism, of connecting your physical body perfectly to your virtual presence. The second is the sort of immersion that a really engrossing role-playing game like Fallout can induce: the knowledge that you could lose a whole weekend to it without even noticing. Think of it as "I’m really there" versus "I’m never leaving."
The Oculus Rift can produce less of this first type than the HTC Vive right now, and it probably will until the Touch controllers ship. But that might actually mean that it offers more of the second. Where our Vive development kit’s weight and motion controls tire me out enough to want periodic breaks, I can easily spend two or three hours at a time in the Rift; I could probably go almost indefinitely if I didn’t have to check email and jot down review notes. VR game developers have yet to produce the kind of 40-plus-hour time sinks that are standard in PC and console gaming, but it’s been almost as hard to tear myself away from Chronos as it was to turn off the PlayStation during my Bloodborne addiction.
This allays one of my biggest fears about virtual reality: that headsets will remain a platform for 20-minute novelty experiences instead of ambitious longform games and fiction. On a purely physical level, however, I’m more ambivalent. Motion-controlled virtual reality experiences — games and apps that ask me to mime things like shooting or painting with my hands — have gotten me physically engaged with computing in a way I’ve never been, and they leave me feeling better as a result. I love the feeling of getting real exercise in a virtual sword-fighting game, or of walking around a real room to see the artwork I’ve created. Sitting down with the Rift, meanwhile, feels as close to being a brain in a jar as humanly possible.
Playing non-VR video games is already a sedentary activity, and I find myself moving even less in the Rift, since I can’t get distracted by my phone or lean over to grab a drink of water. As Oculus writes on a warning screen that appears every time you boot up the Rift: "In using this headset, you will lose the ability to see and hear what’s actually around you." In third-person experiences, you can’t even see that you have a body. I come out of stand-up VR games energized, even when my arms ache and I’m sweating. I leave long-seated Rift sessions with the same fatigue I get from spending a night hunched over my gaming PC, with the occasional side of nausea and eye strain.
I’m in no position to advise anyone on the potential medical risks of VR, but I haven’t had any serious issues with the Rift so far. Very long virtual reality excursions (think days, not hours) have anecdotally weakened people’s eyesight for short periods, and my own eyes would hurt a little after a couple of hours, like a more extreme version of staring at a computer screen late into the night. My other problems have been similarly mundane. VR’s constant head tilts exacerbate a neck and shoulder pain that I developed a few months ago, and games that involve a lot of fast "walking" with a controller still make me sick. At one point I got out of a morning session dizzy and lightheaded; I wondered if I had finally experienced some kind of reaction to leaving reality until I realized that I was just hungry after pushing my meals back for more Rift time.
Talking about any physical downsides to VR plays into all sorts of unpleasant dystopian tropes. You’ve got shades of The Matrix, where people’s bodies atrophy while they’re living in a machine-constructed dreamworld; of the zombie-like VR junkies in Shadowrun; and of every other movie, book, and video game about people ruining their real-world lives to enjoy a virtual one. And there is something a little eerie about putting on a headset in a room with other people, then coming out hours later with red grooves worn into your cheeks and realizing that you’re all alone. But it’s not fundamentally different from any other intense gaming session, except that VR’s nearly mystical reputation primes us to blame or praise it for every unusual feeling we experience around a headset. If anything, the Vive and Oculus Touch have shown us how much motion-controlled VR could improve the status quo.
"Just a few more months" has been the mantra of virtual reality since people started getting excited about the Oculus Rift, and saying it after the headset is released feels like either a huge cop-out or a sign that the VR we want may never actually arrive. But it’s impossible to think of all the unreleased Oculus Touch experiences I’ve tried — like three-dimensional painting tool Quill, Old West shooting gallery Dead & Buried, and a VR version of Rock Band — and not feel like the Rift’s best days are still ahead of it.
For the first time, though, there’s something to do while you wait. The high cost of buying and running high-end VR headsets makes them inaccessible to many people, and the Rift in particular is relentlessly focused on gaming. Within these limitations, though, the Rift makes a good case for seated VR, and it lays a solid foundation for what’s to come. The headset you can buy today is not Oculus’ most ambitious vision for virtual reality — but it’s a vision that Oculus has successfully delivered on.
- Great-looking industrial design
- A few really good seated VR games
- Promising future game catalog with Touch controllers
- Expensive, especially with gaming PC cost figured in
- Not much to do outside gaming
- Lack of motion controls at launch is a big weakness