Hands-on review: Updated: Oculus Rift

What it’s like to wear Oculus Rift

Update: The first Oculus Rift headsets are shipped and on the way to consumers. Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe tweeted on March 24 that the first headsets will start arriving on doorsteps right on schedule: Monday, March 28. However, that date is only for headsets that were pre-ordered several months ago. You can still pre-order a Rift, it just won’t get to you by March 28.

When I think of virtual reality, I think of immersive experiences that transport me to places, real or make believe, I would otherwise never see. VR is the stuff of sci-fi: mesmerizing, otherworldly, and maybe just a little unsettling. It’s going from Point A to who knows where or when, without leaving wherever your mortal shell is in the here and now.

Oculus Rift has achieved this effect, and it’s done so in what feels like the blink of an eye. I can say from my own experience of first trying Rift at GDC 2014 all the way to using the final version just two weeks ago, it’s come a long, long way in a relatively short amount of time. And now, it’s finally on its way to consumers.

Rif’ts transformation begins in the hardware itself. Compared to that first early prototype and later dev kits, the final consumer Rift feels like it actually belongs on your face. It’s lightweight, comfortable and refined.

Oculus Rift

This extends to the software. Rift’s launch games are precisely, often beautifully, rendered. The latency and pixelation issues of earlier Rifts are a distant memory. The games are smooth and stable, and each is delightful in its own way. Whereas at that GDC two years ago the experiences were short, laggy, yet promising demos, Rift’s 30 launch titles are fully realized games.

Oculus has placed a premium on great content for Rift, developed both internally and externally, as Oculus founder Palmer Luckey explained to me.

There’s no argument the games are gorgeous … if you’re using Oculus Rift on an optimized PC. Therein lies the rub: if you’re not, how do games like ADR1FT, an intense launch title set in space, run? I asked Oculus just that question, but haven’t heard back yet. I can imagine, however, that it’s not going to be a good time for anyone.

If your PC is up to spec – which will cost at least $1,500 (about £1,061, AU$2,011) on top of $599/£499/AU$649 for the headset – then Oculus Rift opens up worlds that are unlike anything you’ve ever seen or experienced. The best part? It’s all only going to get better.

What it’s like to wear Oculus Rift

The Oculus Rift headset is an elegant, sleek and, dare I say, stylish black brick you stick on your face. You may not look great wearing it, but the actual hardware can’t be faulted for aesthetics.

It’s a far cry from the rough, almost janky exterior of the very first prototype we tried only a few years ago.

Oculus Rift hands on

Oculus Rift consumer edition isn’t weighty: it almost has a hollow feel when you hold it, though once you have it on it definitely feels like you have on something more substantial than a baseball cap over your head and eyes.

The visor portion doesn’t dig in thanks to dense foam and, when it’s tightened just right, it fits snuggly. Foam cushions the back portion of the strap, so your head is cradled in the Rift.

It’s a little tricky, however, to get the headset to fit just right. When it’s too loose, gaps allow light to come through from underneath the faceplate. Personally, it was kind of a relief to have some connection to the outside world when I looked down and could see a sliver of my hands holding the Xbox One controller, though some may find it distracting.

Rift also needs to be positioned properly on your face, otherwise the focus in the VR experience is off. This will happen if the headset is hanging a little loose or isn’t centered, creating a blurred effect. Too tight, and while the headset is secure and the focus generally spot on, it tends to be uncomfortable. When this happened, it never got to the point where I needed to take the headset off to escape the discomfort, but it ached slightly, like I was wearing a hat a few sizes too small.

Oculus straps and earphones

The headphones are as unobtrusive as they come. They’re positioned flush on the headset, and you can easily flip them over to hear the outside world. When they are turned toward your ear canal, they pump in crisp audio that adds to the immersion.

With the headphones turned in, it almost feels like you’re wearing a lightweight helmet rather than a visor, and it helps draw you even further into the virtual world before your eyes.

The sound offered by the built-in headphones gave me a sense of presence in the Rift’s VR experiences, and I think they’d suite most average users. However, while it’s convenient that the headphones are included, you can also remove the audio arms to use your own set if you prefer a more premium sound.

One gripe with the audio is that it can be so enveloping, especially if the volume is turned up, that you’re cut off completely from the world around you. I had to strain to hear what people who were sitting no more than two feet away from me were saying if the volume was on the higher end. Unlike Microsoft HoloLens, which lets you not only see everything that’s in your environment but also hear fairly well, you don’t always have that ability with Oculus Rift.

Oculus Rift

It could be troublesome if someone comes into a room and tries to talk to you, but you can’t see or hear them. Maybe that’s what you want – some uninterrupted alone time – but it might be harder for some to justify tuning out the world completely.

I’ll dive into controls a little later in this review, but the Xbox One controller that comes with every Rift feels like a bit of an add-on. “Here, we didn’t make this, but you need it to play!” Still, there weren’t any hardware issues. It’s a perfectly capable controller, so no complaints there.

The final standout piece of the hardware is the PC tether, the headset’s lifeline to the engine that runs all of its experiences. It comes out the rear of the headset and curves over your back or shoulder, and it’s a light touch that you don’t really feel unless your arm gets hooked under it, which happened to me. You’ll also definitely notice it if you’re sitting on it, start to tilt your head forward and suddenly find you can’t move it any further, like reaching the end of a rope.

Oculus Rift

I played a Rift game standing, and while I could sense the tether’s presence, it didn’t get in the way (and I didn’t fall over it – yay!). One of this particular game’s producers told me that the team designed it for a PC and accounted for the tether, so it in a way influenced the game, or at least how the devs thought about helping players avoid it.

Oculus Touch controllers and Early verdict

Oculus Touch controllers

Oculus Touch controllers

Oculus Touch won’t be available for Rift at launch as Oculus wanted more time to perfect the controllers. The company plans to release them in the second half of 2016, at which time it will also launch a number of games that will take advantage of hand tracking.

The company told me it’s improved the controllers in a number of areas, and I was able to test a recently refined version of Touch a few weeks ago.

This was my first time using Oculus’ proprietary peripheral for Rift, incorporating at long last my hands into a virtual reality experience.

I used Touch to play a game called VR Sports, and while I was gripping the controllers with my real hands, what I saw in the game was a computer-generated pair of hands. While they weren’t mine, when I saw them, it felt right. There wasn’t that, “Wait, where did my hands go?!” moment, which can happen – even on a subconscious level – when you’re using the Xbox One controller and you look down with the headset on.

Touch controllers

The hands in VR Sports were male and only went to the wrist before fading into the scenery, but it didn’t bother me to have these disembodied stranger’s hands acting as my own. I was too enraptured with their ability to grab and shoot a basketball and taking snaps before attempting a touchdown pass – all thanks to me pressing, releasing and positioning with Touch – to care.

Haptic feedback gives you the sensation that you’re grabbing and holding onto the ball, and “letting go” of it when you release the trigger button. It’s a subtle effect that tricks you into thinking you’re playing with tangible objects.

While I found the controllers to be as well designed as Rift, it might be better if they were a little heavier so they feel more substantial in your real-life mitts. I can see why the controllers have that same hollow feel as the headset, though: Oculus doesn’t want you to get tired while you’re playing. Still, when I went to chuck a football or flicked my wrist to shoot a basketball, it felt like I was putting in more effort than the controllers warranted. It didn’t feel completely satisfying.

A thin black rope loops Touch to your wrist, like Wii remote controllers. Someone else assisted me in slipping the loop on, so it’s likely you’ll need a helper at home, have to put them on yourself before the headset, or generally know where they are once you have the Rift covering your eyes.

Touch controllers

With the Touch controllers, I dominated a 3-point shooting contest, failed miserably at being a football quarterback (I’m a much better virtual wide receiver, it turns out), and soared in a slam dunk contest. While I wasn’t making holding and releasing motions with my hands in the real world, the controllers executed their commands proficiently.

Though polished, the controllers felt like they have one too many buttons and knobs, and some of the command options weren’t intuitive. In the slam dunk contest, for example, I was supposed to be able to switch the basketball between my hands by letting go of the trigger in one hand and pushing down the other.

It was a lot harder than it sounds when you’re also trying to focus on what’s going on in the game and releasing the basketball at just the right time by also letting go of the triggers to put it in the basket. It felt like perhaps the A button should have let me release the basketball while the triggers let me do tricks.

Perhaps that’s a kink for VR Sports to work out, or something Oculus needs to consider when it comes to how developers are able to implement controls.

Touch controllers

Having the use of your hands in VR makes a substantial difference in how immersive the experience feels, though for the right games. I didn’t feel the need to have my hands in most of the other launch titles I tried.

Space adventure ADR1FT does comes to mind as one where it would have been awesome to reach out and grab life-saving oxygen tanks with my hands. ADR1FT Creative Director Adam Orth of Three One Zero told me it was too late to add Touch support to the game, but said the team is already working on incorporating it in another title.

The limits of Touch

Though Touch is basically a controller that’s been cut in half so that you can hold the two pieces in each of your hands, the ability to move my arms to execute motions and have visible (if made up) hands in front of me transformed me into an active participant in this virtual world.

As opposed to sitting in a chair with a controller in my lap, I was now standing, throwing and shooting using my whole body on the virtual court and gridiron. Even though I couldn’t see myself, I know I was squaring up as if I was really going to shoot a basketball and dropping back to pass the virtual football.

In real life, I was holding onto nothing except the Touch, but the controllers allowed more of my body to participate in VR. It’s incredible the difference that makes.

What’s frustrating, however, is that I wasn’t using genuine hand and finger motions to perform the actions the game required. Even though I could see a pair of hands holding the basketball or football in front of me as if I had just picked them up and was about to hurl them into space, all I was really doing was pressing some buttons.

To throw a football to someone in the real world, my body instinctively takes over. My fingers know just how to flick to get some spin, my wrist knows how to turn, and my hand knows how to position itself for accuracy.

It didn’t quite compute, then, when I had to parse those motions down to the restrictions of a controller that only has me press a few buttons to execute the throw. I still had to make a throwing motion with my arm, yes, but it was that final act of letting go that left me wanting more.

Maybe with more play time I would learn the nuances of the game and it would all run more smoothly and I wouldn’t care about pressing buttons, but as-is Touch provides greater immersion – up to a certain point.

Early verdict

Experiencing the evolution of Oculus Rift has been almost awe-inspiring. Oculus has stuck to its vision, even when those early prototypes were questionable and the demos nearly too laggy to bear. I can’t help but feel like I’ve not only witnessed the next transformative phase of computing, but also been a small part of it because I tried it at several stages along the way.

Oculus Rift

The consumer-ready Rift is a lovely piece of hardware. But it’s more than just a pretty headset: Oculus has built a whole ecosystem for its baby, from the sound of the built-in headphones to the games to the Touch controllers.

As soon as you put on the Rift, you are immediately transported to a whole new world. Touch controllers, though limited in some ways, will bring the rest of your body along for the ride.

The problem, of course, is everything that’s not the Rift, its controllers or games. While $600 is a hefty chunk of change for any device, it’s the PC set-up that’s two-and-a-half times more expensive than the headset that consumers will get stuck on.

The price of the whole package is going to be prohibitive, and it’s likely going to keep many from jumping to Rift right away. But for those who have a compatible PC or invest in one and take the Rift plunge, it’s going to be worth every penny.

When Touch controllers come out and Rift, one day, loses the tether and a few dollars, it will transform how we play games, do work and interact with one another. If Rift has come this far, this fast, I don’t think it’s going to be much longer before that comes true, too.

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