On the first day of August, 2012, Oculus launched its Kickstarter. In doing so it started not one, but two revolutions. The project’s massive success proved people wanted to give virtual reality another shot, and showed Kickstarter can lift the fortunes of not just an entire company, but an entire category of products. The 2.4 million dollars raised by Oculus seems paltry compared to more recent crowd-funded projects, but it put the company on sound footing, and led to its acquisition by Facebook for a cool two billion.
Oculus needed the backing. Its Kickstarter was launched almost four years ago. That’s a long time for a product to be in development, and in that time Oculus launched several developer kits. Now, the final, retail edition is here, and anyone can buy it – as long as you have $600 and you’re willing to wait a few months.
But the Rift’s long development has given the competition a chance to strike. HTC’s Vive is now available, and there’s a number of less expensive headsets based on mobile hardware, including the Samsung Gear VR, built in partnership with Oculus. Has the Rift’s development resulted in a well-thought out headset? Or have the delays shot it past its time to shine?’
A work of art
You’d expect almost four years of development to result in a refined product. And that certainly describes the Rift. HTC’s Vive looks like a prop designed for a B-list cyberpunk film. The Rift is something you’d be proud to have on your desk.
The Rift’s hardware quality and design surpasses even HTC’s Vive.
Fabric is the key to its design. It covers almost the entirely of the head-mounted display, as well as a triangle on the rear of the headband. The fabric looks opaque, but is transparent to infrared light, which lets Oculus hide its internal sensors. While the Rift appears sleek, with few individual components, it’s actually crammed full of hardware.
Its hardware quality is on par with the design, and surpasses even HTC’s Vive. Every part feels light, yet durable, and seems tightly screwed together. The straps are more rugged than with competitors, though they’re also smaller, and even the padding seems more rugged. Some testers found that last point a problem, because the Rift feels rougher and tighter than competing headsets. But the padding holds up better than the Vive’s, which became discolored almost immediately.
Designed for comfort
The broad strokes of the headband’s design are similar to other headsets. There are two side straps, and one over-head strap, which connect to a triangular support that grips the rear of your head. But the Rift’s straps operate more smoothly than most, which means adjustments require little force, and strap tension is better tuned to make the Rift simple to put on or take off.
Most testers found it more comfortable than HTC’s Vive, though there was some dissent. Those who liked the Rift better unanimously cited its weight. It felt like less of a burden than any VR headset we’ve tested, including the Samsung Gear VR, and shifted little when testers moved to and fro.
Those who disagreed about the Rift’s comfort felt it was too narrow, or sat awkwardly. One tester remarked the Rift “feels more like a hat, while the Vive felt more like a helmet.” Everyone agree that the Rift’s face padding felt unforgiving, and most testers noticed light leaking in from the bottom of the headset.
Just one cord connects the Rift to the PC. It’s shorter than the Vive’s cord, since the Rift is designed for a seated experience in a smaller area. Strangely, the cord shoots off to the left, rather than off the center. That’s probably meant to make the run towards the PC shorter, but it only really pays off if you normally have your computer sitting to your left. It also feels less natural to have a cord dangling across one shoulder rather than straight down your back.
That’s a minor miss, though, and ultimately a single cord (which splits at the end into two – one HDMI, one USB) is far easier to manage than the Vive’s massive cord bundle. The Rift also has just one external IR sensor, a small device that sits on a desk. It’s a cinch to set up and doesn’t demand you re-arrange your entire room to accommodate it (yes, technically you can use the Vive as a sitting headset — but that’s missing the point).
A good first impression, but get a bucket ready
While the Rift’s initial comfort was excellent, motion sickness quickly became a problem. All six of our testers reported discomfort. For some, it was little more than a lingering sense of vertigo. For others, the problem was so bad it meant putting the headset down after a few minutes of play.
Lucky’s Tale, a platformer played from a god-like perspective, was the most comfortable. Eve: Valkyrie upset a few stomachs, but half of our testers had no issue. The horror game Dreadhalls produced the worst results, especially as players ran from monsters. No one threw up, but a couple players went pale and had to quit within minutes.
No one threw up, but a couple players went pale and had to quit within minutes.
The Xbox controller caused some complaints. It’s a great gamepad, but its use feels awkward more often than not. Grasping a control in Eve: Valkyrie seems odd when your virtual avatar is clearly grasping a pair of joysticks. Users without previous experience with it will run into major problems, since there’s no way to see the controller while using it. The Rift assumes a certain level of muscle memory, and if you don’t have it, you’ll be fumbling at the buttons hoping to find what works.
While all VR headsets cause some disorientation, the Rift is the worst we’ve tested. The problem seems to be the combination of fast-paced, visually stimulating titles, and a seated experience.
Samsung’s Gear VR is also seated and far less apt at tracking – but the games are generally limited in scope, and slow in pace. The Vive, meanwhile, allows you to move in real space while moving in virtual space, which eliminates any disconnect between what you see and what you feel. Oculus has landed at an awkward compromise with the Rift, and your stomach pays the price.
Like a cat stuck behind a screen door
The Rift has an effective total resolution of 2,160 x 1,200 pixels. That sounds like a lot. But a VR headset places the screen just one or two inches away from your eyes, which makes pixels easy to pick out. Some companies, like AMD, say fully immersive VR must pack up to 116 megapixels into a phone-sized display. We’re a long ways from that standard.
Clarity, while far from perfect, wasn’t a major issue. Most games looked crisp enough to remain impressive, though the overall effect was more akin to playing on a weaker 720p monitor than a modern 1440p or 4K display. But what it lacked in sharpness it makes up for with a 90Hz refresh rate and extremely effective stereoscopic 3D. The display provided an excellent sense of depth in every game and experience we tried.
The real problem was the dreaded “screen door effect,” a pattern of visible lines in the picture. Pixels have gaps between them, and when the gaps are too large (relative to viewing distance), they’re visible. Old computer displays often had this problem, but it went away as pixel density increased. Now, it’s back.
The “screen door” was especially distracting in bright scenes. To be fair, though, every current VR headset suffers the problem to some degree. It just comes with the territory, and will remain ever-present until screen resolution improves.
And we noticed another problem, one we’ve not witnessed elsewhere. In dark scenes the Rift’s display had a distracting “sparkling” effect, which seems to be caused by uneven pixel brightness. A black scene is never dark, nor evenly lit; instead, multiple grainy points of light appear. It looks a bit like a bad film-grain Photoshop filter.
Your ears are treated better. The Rift’s built-in headphones are comfortable, reasonably loud, and not in-ear. That latter point is a benefit. With in-ear headphones, as used with some competitors, it’s hard to hear what’s nearby. A rabid badger could attack your friend just a few feet away, but you’d never know. Over-ear headphones provide a better sense of what’s nearby in real life without ruining your virtual immersion.
Just what you wanted – another software storefront
Setting up the Oculus couldn’t be easier. A card in the box directs you to the Oculus website, where you can download the installer. Once launched, a slick visual wizard guides you through each step. The process takes less than 10 minutes.
After setup, you’re directed to a few brief demos before you’re plopped into your Oculus Home – which is basically the Oculus Store. As with the Gear VR and the Vive, the Rift goes hand-in-hand with a specific digital storefront. Technically, it can be used outside of it. You can use the Rift with a Steam copy of Elite: Dangerous, for example. But in most situations trying to use the headset with titles outside the storefront is much less intuitive than if you stay within its confines, and not possible at all if the game’s not already coded for it.
The Oculus Home menus are intuitive. Your gaze acts as a mouse cursor while the gamepad buttons are used to select or retreat from menu screens. A selection of three buttons always hovers at the bottom of the viewing area, ready to send you to your library, home screen, or the store.
SteamVR isn’t confusing, but it’s not quite as easy to navigate. The difference probably has more to do with design than with execution. Oculus Home is smaller in scope. It’s not hooked into a wider ecosystem of desktop games. Oculus’ friend list is barely functional. There are no profiles, and no achievements. There’s not even a way to prioritize downloads, though they can be paused.
The in-headset Home interface isn’t the only way to interact with the store and library, either. There’s also a sleek, simple desktop application. It’s as limited as Home, but at least provides a way to view the store, purchases, settings, and downloads outside of the headset.
There’s nothing wrong with Home, but there could be more right with it. Steam is familiar, and it’s the de-facto gaming platform for a lot of gamers. Oculus’ decision to ignore it for a less functional proprietary alternative is sure to annoy gamers already tired of managing a roster of logins for various hardware platforms and game publishers.
The Rift’s launch line-up looks great on paper. Eve: Valkyrie is the obvious headliner, a striking space combat game that looks awesome in screenshots and videos. But the developer, CCP, has overhyped the game. What you’ve seen in demos is almost the entirety of the game’s single-player content.
You could be forgiven for thinking it has a story mode full of tense action sequences. It doesn’t. Instead, it has a single-player survival mode and online multi-player, the latter of which appears to be a grind-fest despite the fact the game sells for $60 (this is the “Founders Pack,” which gives you a special ship skin and some credits). It’s essentially a free-to-play game that’s not free to play.
We have an overwhelming sense of disappointment about the Rift.
The other headliner is Lucky’s Tale, a 3D platformer played from a third-person perspective. It’s cute, and will service fans of the genre. We haven’t played enough to give it a final verdict but, unlike Eve Valkyrie, it at least stands up to a couple hours of scrutiny. We’re still scratching our heads as to why it’s designed for the Rift, though. The game doesn’t gain much for it.
BlazeRush is our favorite so far. It’s a $10 combat racing game played from a third-person isometric perspective. Or, to put it more simply, it’s like playing slot cars. The game is good fun, but we’re not sure it’d entertain for more than a few hours. The courses are basic, and each race lasts just few minutes.
We also tried the Apollo 11 Experience, an underwhelming documentary-as-game with limited interactivity. It’s another good idea, but its tedious pacing and laughable visuals make it a snooze-fest despite its engaging subject.
Most of the games for HTC’s Vive and Samsung’s Gear VR are similarly shallow, but as it stands, the Rift’s line-up falls short. The Vive has Fantastic Contraption, a wonderful VR-enabled take on the puzzle genre. The Gear VR has Land’s End, a relaxing, atmospheric puzzler that paints beautiful scenes out of rudimentary graphics. There may be hidden gems in the Rift’s line-up that we’ve not yet tried, but its main attractions are a letdown.
The Oculus Rift ships with the usual one-year warranty, which is the same as every other VR headset so far.
In 2012, when the current generation of virtual reality began to appear, you could easily lose yourself in it. The technology was new, unexpected, promising. It had flaws, but that could be excused. It was still in development.
Virtual reality has moved rapidly since then. We’ve tried other VR headsets, as well as augmented reality devices like the Microsoft HoloLens. The initial wonder has been replaced with the expectation of a solid, everyday device. The time to dream of what VR can be has passed, and the time to show what it can do has arrived.
The Rift, unfortunately, does less than expected. It was supposed to herald a new kind of experience. Instead, it feels like a 3D monitor that straps to your head. Nothing you’ll enjoy on it fundamentally differs from anything you’d play on a normal PC. That may change when the Oculus Touch controllers appear later this year. Or it may not.
This isn’t to say the Rift is a failure. It’s easy to setup, easy to use, and can be good fun, if you play the right game. It also works in small rooms, while the HTC Vive does not. Yet these points don’t distract from our overwhelming sense of disappointment. The Rift was set to be the next big thing. It isn’t.