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E3 2015 Preview - Hands-on with the consumer Oculus Rift
Oculus Rift release date: Q1 2016
Oculus Touch release date: First half of 2016
A lot has changed since the last time we saw the Oculus Rift. The headset finally has a loose Q1 2016 release date and Oculus is now showing off the consumer version of its virtual reality headset.
At E3 2015, I managed to get two distinct Oculus Rift demonstrations to show off the new enhancements. The first just showcased the first batch of Oculus Rift games, with nine titles available to choose from. But the second gave me the opportunity to test out the new Oculus Touch controllers.
During the Oculus press conference in early June, the company announced a selection of launch titles for the Oculus Rift, including Chronos from Gunfire Games, Edge of Nowhere from Insomniac, Chronos, Damaged Core, VR Sports Challenge, Esper, AirMechVR and Lucky's Tale.
All the games are presented to you in a panel floating in a futuristic room when you put on the Oculus Rift, where you are surrounded by curved metal chairs and glass panels. You feel like you are sitting in what could be your own living room if you lived in Beverly Hills and were a millionaire.
Slightly panicked by the fact I could only play one of the nine available, I plucked for the colourful Lucky’s Tale, what I feel is a slight homage to Rare’s Conker series. You join Lucky in this action adventure as a watcher; a floating head that controls the camera and glides along behind Lucky as he jumps from platform to platform.
Oculus Rift is certainly a new way to experience a platformer — fireballs whizzing past your head as you navigate the moving platforms using the Xbox One controller in your hand. It feels strange not to experience a VR title from the first-person perspective, but it gives you an idea as to how more traditional games can be conveyed in virtual reality.
See also: Oculus Rift vs Project Morpheus
As for the headset itself, the consumer version actually looks and feels like a final product. The headband has been revamped, with a larger panel around the back. Although there were issues with light leakage around my nose (something that would no doubt be fixed if I could adjust it personally), it’s the most comfortable and lightweight Oculus yet.
The front panel of the headset has been smoothed and finished off too, so you know you’re no longer looking at a prototype device. The sides have been covered in foam too, creating a smooth exterior that is still lightweight. I also didn’t have the usual issues of the displays misting up towards the end of my session, although I was testing in a freezing air-conditioned room.
See also: Xbox One vs PS4
Oculus Touch controllers
But, while testing out the first Oculus Rift games with an Xbox One controller (not the Xbox One Elite Controller either) was great, it was nothing compared to the treat I had next.
Ushered into a sound-dampened room with nothing else but a couple of screens and a floor mat in the centre, it was time to try out the new Oculus Touch controllers.
Don’t be deceived by the bizarre appearance of the Oculus Touch controllers. Although these prototype “Half-Moon” versions might look like an Xbox One controller that’s been snapped in half with a couple of hoops attached to go around your hand, they showcase just how immersive virtual reality can be.
I was fitted with the latest Oculus Rift headset and asked to make lobster claws with my hands. I didn’t actually get to see the Touch controllers before they slid them over my hands, so discovering with touch made the experience even more intense.
See also: Best Games 2015
Suddenly my hands appeared in the game and what’s great about the Oculus Touch - just like the HTC Vive controllers - is that you can see your fingers moving. On each Touch controller there’s an analogue stick and set of two buttons under your thumb, then a trigger under each of your forefinger and middle finger.
The triggers are used to make a fist and the middle finger trigger picks things up, but you can make more gestures with your hands because the forefinger trigger and analogue stick have pressure sensors in them. That means I was giving thumbs up and making air guns all over the shot at first.
But the immersion began when I realised the floating head and hands in front of my own weren’t just a video stream, it was another Oculus Rift user in the room next to me - Mustafa, my guide for the session.
The demo took place in what Oculus is calling its Toybox test environment. It’s what Oculus uses internally to test the Touch controllers and it’s easy to see why. In terms of looks it was a barebones workshop with a selection of toys laid out on a table in front of me. After acclimatising myself to the controllers and their various buttons I was picking up a toy robot and pulling his limbs off with ease, before moving on to lighting fireworks and sparklers with my new found friend.
That was a chance to show off the spacial audio of the Rift too, moving the sparkler around my head actually caused the audio to react accordingly, making the entire experience feel a little dangerous.
See also: Xbox One vs Xbox 360
Working out how much I could actually do with the controllers came very naturally. Sonic blasters and slingshots were my favourite things to test out, firing at moving arcade-style targets with Mustafa makes you quickly forget that you’re in a virtual reality environment. You could even duck under the table and shoot targets from a new angle.
I tossed blocks, used a punching bag, guided a remote control tank with working cannons, attempted a rally in ping-pong and flicked cuboids into space. Not to mention being shrunk with a shrink ray.
The only issue is the lack of weight awareness. Although there’s feedback in the controllers to show you’re picking something up or coming into contact with something, there was no sense of weight to anything I was holding, which jars the brain a little.
But virtual reality as a place to hang with your mates suddenly felt like it could be a viable option on a rainy Sunday.
With a host of developers on board already, a finalised headset and impressive controllers, I’m starting to believe that virtual reality is a reality. Something you can have in your home and could lose yourself for hours in, rather than a gimmick at tech shows. I’ll admit it, I was convinced the HTC Vive was the better beast, but after this Oculus Rift is shuffling to the top of the pack.
Oculus Rift Crescent Bay – the latest iteration of the VR phenomenon
It’s fair to say I was a big fan of the Oculus Rift well before Crescent Bay was even a glint in inventor Palmer Luckey’s eye. Actually it’s fair to say I’d sell my house, car and pet cat for the consumer version once it (finally) arrives. I’ve tried a few VR headsets in my time and none have excited me as much as the Oculus Rift since I donned the first clunky prototype back in 2012.
There’s been significant evolution since that rather low-res and nausea-inducing DK1 (Development Kit 1). Crystal Cove – the second prototype of the Rift or DK2 – increased the resolution to full-HD, added positional tracking and an OLED screen. The OLED screen by Samsung (the same one the Galaxy Note 3 totes) brought an increase in resolution and low-persistence into the frame.
Low-persistence makes a huge difference to the experience. It decreases motion blur which reduces nausea or ‘simulator sickness’. This is also helped by the lower latency. It means you can keep the Oculus on your head for hours rather than minutes at a time.
Read also: Oculus Rift vs Project Morpheus
What is motion blur and low-persistence?
A combination of factors cause motion blur – the effect that makes moving objects blur. On the Rift even ‘static’ objects get blurred because your head movement shifts what’s on screen. So text on a virtual sign, for example, blur as you move your head even though it's 'fixed'.
Displays, whether CRT, LED or OLED, work by displaying static images (frames) in fast succession (refresh rate), tricking you into thinking everything is moving as in real life. Eyes don’t work like that though, they are analog. Motion blur occurs because your eyes are jumping around tracking moving objects across the screen while the screen is refreshing. Persistence leaves the image on the screen for some milliseconds making it looked blurred to your eyes that have moved on. Then there’s latency (how quickly a pixel changes) and a whole host of other factors which we won’t go into right now in case you start nodding off.
The first Oculus Rift suffered significantly from vomit-inducing motion blur
Low-persistence helps reduce motion blur by reducing the time an image stays on screen – the persistence of the image. In the case of the Oculus Rift Crystal Cove and Crescent Bay this was achieved by flickering a black screen between frames (another way is by increasing the refresh rate or Hz). This is imperceptible to the human eye (you won’t notice the screen going black) but significantly reduces the motion blur effect.
In fact Mark Rejhon from motion blur experts Blur Busters tested the persistence and found that DK1 matched most 60Hz LCD TVs and monitors with a 16ms persistence at a movement speed of 960 pixels per second. A 120Hz gaming LCD monitor halves this to 8ms while the Oculus DK2 lowered it even more to 2ms.
That’s all well and good, but what does it all mean in the real world?
We played several sessions of EVE: Valkyrie and Elite: Dangerous using the Oculus DK2 and found them to be incredibly immersive. I experienced no ill effects, but my colleague felt a little queasy after a few 15-minute sessions of intense dogfights in space.
Crescent Bay is the latest version of the Oculus Rift and the best yet.
So what’s new? The people at Oculus are pretty tight lipped about the specs, but the most important aspect, the screen, seems to have had a lift. We can’t confirm the resolution, but graphics look crisper and motion blur is even less of an issue.
We expect the screen on Crescent Bay is the same 1440p display as the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, even though Oculus didn’t provide any confirmation of this. That would mean a resolution of 1440 x 1280 per eye. Regardless of whether there's been a lift in resolution, the demo we saw was a big step forward in comparison with anything we’ve experienced before in the realms of VR.
Read more: PS4 vs Xbox One
Set in a small dark room – with a square grey mat at its centre that we were asked to keep inside of – the demo lasted around 10 minutes and didn’t include any direct user control. We could look around but not influence proceedings to any significant degree.
The first noticeable improvement was Crescent Bay’s lightness and how securely it sat on my head with a minimum of fuss or fiddle. This feels like a VR headset that won’t strain your neck muscles, even after prolonged use. You still have to deal with cables, which Oculus had expertly managed in the demo room to minimise issues. Cables are a limiting factor when you consider that you need to be tethered to a PC. Still I was turning 360 degrees during the demo without being pulled back by a tight cord.
The headphones might look like no-frills flight ones but work well
The other major addition are the the headphones. In the past we’ve used the Oculus with a third-party headset, adding to the weight on your noggin. On Crescent Bay these are mounted on the side that hover just over your ears. These provide 3D audio, an important addition for any 3D environment. It’s a virtualised rather than true 3D surround sound, but good nevertheless. It gives you both a sense of location and direction.
The camera that first made an appearance on Crystal Cove has been improved on Crescent Bay. This still sits opposite you but can now track 360 degree head movement thanks to small white squares dotted all around the headset. Where the DK2 would lose you and need to recalibrate if you rotated your head too much we found Crescent Bay to be rock solid. At least for the brief time we had with the latest version of the Rift.
Crescent Bay has white dots on the back so the camera doesn't lose head tracking
That’s not to say I didn’t test it. I shook my head violently left, right, up and down to get text to blur, the Rift to shift from its optimal position and to get the head tracking to lose me. But, try as I might to break it, everything worked perfectly and looked spectacular.
The impressive demo consisted of several environments lasting about a minute each.
The first demo puts you inside a huge museum, where you think you’re content looking around the exhibits. Suddenly, a T-Rex comes lumbering around the corner.
The beast looked magnificent and offered a sense of scale you’ll never get on a monitor or even an 85-inch TV. The 3D audio also added a new dimension I hadn’t realised was missing on the DK2 demos I’d tried. I turned towards the rumble to see the T-Rex as it came into my field of view. Audio cues will become a major aspect of game design if VR takes off.
Next, I find myself on an alien planet where a grey alien stands opposite me. He lifts his hands and waves. And I instinctively wave back.
Quite how idiotic I looked from the outside waving to a wall I’m not sure. What I found incredible was that I waved back without even thinking about it. I didn’t care how I looked – this is a level of immersion you won’t find anywhere else in gaming or film.
Oculus’ next demo positions me precariously at the edge of a skyscraper. I can hear the wind whistling past my ears as I look at the people hundreds of metres below.
I felt a little vertigo but not too much. That’s possibly because the cityscape had a steampunk, Bioshock aspect to it rather than a real-world look.
Other parts of the demo included a ‘magic-mirror’ where a ghost-like mask matched my head movements, a claustrophobic submarine and the cherry on top of the incredible VR feast – a demo of Unreal Engine 4.
This was the closest thing we got to a traditional game experience, but was again on rails with no user input.
Finally, a futuristic city-scape is the midst of a battle, where soldiers are firing on a giant insect-like robot. But everything is in slow-motion. A car is hit by an explosive and gracefully flips over my head, while pieces of debris and shrapnel float slowly past.
This was undoubtedly the most spectacular of the demos and gave us the clearest indication of what a first person shooter could look like using the Oculus Rift. It was nothing short of astonishing.
With no release date in sight for the Oculus Rift we were once again left wishing that a consumer version was available. It’s understandable why Oculus want to make sure everything is perfect for the final version to help ensure success. But we’ve seen far worse products hit the shelves and achieve moderate success. Look at the swathe of smartwatches with limited function out there if you want an example.
We’d take Crescent Bay as is right now, but the tightly controlled demo may still hide general usability issues that only come to light when using the Rift for hours at a time. We’ve spent longer periods with DK2 and found that the experience became exhausting after 45 minutes to an hour.
Oculus Rift DK2 was tiresome for long bouts even with the low-persistence improvements
The problem was the sheer immersion, the weight and heat of the headset strapped to you and that the latency. Reduced though the persistence and latency was, it still racked up after a while to cause some disorientation.
All these issues are fixable, though. In fact many have already been further addressed in Oculus’ latest incarnation of the Rift.
We suspect there are still a couple of problems that Oculus will hope to solve before releasing a consumer version. Further reducing latency and persistence in one. The more responsive the experience the more ‘natural’ it will feel. Oculus has already made significant inroads to sorting this.
The second is more problematic. In an ideal world the Oculus Rift would be wireless – not bound to a PC or console with cables and even easier to use with the accessories like the Virtuix Omni that allows movement in a set space. Quite how close Oculus is to that ideal, we don’t yet know.
Lips remain tightly sealed regarding an Oculus Rift release date or even the release of DK3. We'll keep you posted with news.