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Oculus Rift – Crystal Cove Prototype

Way back in August 2012 Oculus VR started a Kickstarter fund for a video headset, the Oculus Rift. This wasn't like any video headsets we'd seen in the past. The Rift is a truly immersive 3D expeirence that takes over your whole field of vision and tracks, tracks where you're looking and, now, the position of your head. The $250k goal was smashed with almost $2.5m raised before the end of the deadline.

Since the first version wowed the tech world in 2012, the Oculus Rift has undergone a number of iterative improvements, all of which have made the Rift better. This led to Facebook buying the company for $2 billion in March 2014, not a bad return for a couple of years' work. So good in fact that Sony has decided to make its own version for the PS4 called Project Morpheus

TrustedReviews went hands-on with the latest version, the Oculus Rift Crystal Cove prototype, at CES 2014 and E3 2014 to see if we are any closer to getting one of the most exciting gaming accessories ever into shops.

Read also: Oculus Rift vs Project Morpheus

Oculus Rift Crystal Cove – Hands-on review

When we first experienced the Rift at E3 2012, we had no doubt that there was a great deal of potential in the immersive gameplay it can provide.  It was also obvious that a great deal of work was still required to ensure that it didn’t end up just another gaming curio, like Nintendo’s 1995 Virtual Boy. 

The technology has moved on a lot since then but the low-resolution graphics made everything look like it was covered by a crosshatch effect.  Add to that some heavy motion blur and it turned out that many users couldn’t spend more than a few minutes using the first Oculus Rift without succumbing to motion sickness. We didn’t suffer as much as others but there was a definite feeling that all wasn’t quite right and after a few goes we did start to feel a little queasy, particularly when it was paired with the brilliantly fun walking harness of the Omni Virtuix.

In 2013 we got the 1080p prototype. This went a long way to fix the low resolution issue and significantly improving the motion blur effect. Gone were the grainy graphics – images were now sharp and in reasonable focus. Playing the excellently bonkers Surgeon Simulator was one of the most enthralling gaming experience I’d had in years. 

However, playing a zero gravity level led to some serious disorientation. Initially all was good – I was performing the operation with, well, surgical precision. After about 3 minutes of gameplay it all became a little too much. The controls became fuzzy and inaccurate, and the game ended more like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre than Grey’s Anatomy. 

The zero-g level of Surgeon Simulator led to some disorientation

There were a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, while the resolution was a lot better, there was still a fair amount of motion blur that was particularly noticeable when moving my head quickly. This leads to the disorientation. Secondly, while the version of the Oculus Rift i was using tracked  my orientation (i.e. in which direction you’re looking), it did not track the poition of my head. This led to me taking the Rift off my head and realising I had turned 180 degrees on the stool I had been sitting on while in game I was still looking in the same direction I was when I started playing.

Step forward the 1080p AMOLED packing Oculus Rift Crystal Cove prototype. The new AMOLED displays provide better blacks and more accurate colours than we experienced in previous models, but it’s the much lower latency of 1ms as opposed to 15ms that provides the real benefit. It essentially eliminates the motion blur issues by using a low-persistence display mode to trick your eyes into seeing seamless motion, in a similar way that 24fps in a film looks seamless. Product Lead Joseph Chen explains why resolving the effect was so important “Motion blur is annoying because it’s not clear. Imagine walking round all day without your glasses on – it just doesn’t feel right”.

The second, and more unexpected, addition to the Oculus Rift is positional tracking. For Chen it's a vital improvement: “We always knew where you were looking but we didn’t know where your head was and that’s really important. We have to know that data because the errors, even from tiny movements you don’t notice you make, can stack up and make you feel uncomfortable – you need to be comfortable before you can have fun”. 
Oculus Rift Crystal Cove
Sensors around the front and sides of the Rift help it track position

To this end the latest Rift comes with infrared LEDs on it and a camera mounted in front of the user that can track movement meaning it now knows where the players head is. It was a revelation in practice. I moved my head towards a cockpit monitor when playing the impressive EVE: Valkyrie and it got closer, making it easier for me to see the readout clearly. “When I look at an object it should still be there when I lean, it shouldn’t follow me and at the same time when I move my head it shouldn’t get blurry because when it gets blurry you really don’t know where it” explained Chen. It’s a subtle but dazzling effect.

Flying through deep, dark space in Valkyrie looked stunning and using my head to track bogies while controlling the ship with an Xbox One controller felt like second nature. It meant that I was able to lock on and fire missiles while performing evasive manoeuvres, all without the faintest hint of blur or motion sickness. 
Oculus Rift Crystal Cove
Valkyrie uses the Rift to look around while steering is handled by the controller

Oculus Rift Crystal Cove Prototype: First impressions

Oculus has made another massive step forward towards the first truly viable VR headset. We would happily take it home with us today but there’s still no official release date on the cards. Oculus VR doesn’t want to release a product it doesn't feel is right – an admirable sentiment, however the wait is killing us at the TrustedReviews office.

The fact that Oculus VR is about to showcase the Rift to filmmakers at the Sundance film festival means that we may well see a revolution in film-making as well as gaming. The possibilities are mesmerising. 

“There’s so much more to be done – the experience is only going to get better” Joseph Chen told us with glee. We really can’t wait to see what’s next.

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