Posted by Matt Egan 05 September 2013
We test the Oculus Rift: why virtual reality is back, back, back!
We took a ride on a virtual reality rollercoaster courtesy of Specialmoves and the Oculus Rift. Know this: VR is back, back, back. And this time it's here to stay.
If I mentioned Virtual Reality to you, you'd probably blanche. And for good reason. It its first great flowering VR was one of many putative next bit things that turned into something of a white elephant riding on a white elephant. (And inadvertanly spawned the pun-turned-abomination that is Jamiroqui's Virtual Insanity.)
Virtual Reality was oversold in its 1990s incarnation. What hardware there was proved unreliable, unsatisfying and - well - bulky. You required neck muscles like a Formula One driver to keep the headsets vertical, and the content such as it was fell a long way short of creating virtual worlds to be explored with suspended disbelief.
But VR is back, back, back.
Future's made of virtual reality
The Oculus Rift - crazy name, crazy device - is, according to its manufacturer, a 'next-generation virtual reality headset designed for immersive gaming'. It's a head-mounted, immersive 3D display for gaming. Actually in some ways that sells it short: gaming is just one option for such kit, but we digress. The Oculus Rift has been developed by a startup company called Oculus VR who have managed to raise $16 million, of which $2.4 million was raised with crowdfunding via Kickstarter.
That sounds like a lot of money but it's not a huge sum in the world of VC funding, and some of the limitations were apparent when we tested out a Oculus Rift developers kit courtesy of Specialmoves.
You can purchase a developers kit, by the way. But you have to be - how can I put this - a developer. It costs £300. But that's pretty much where the bad news ends, because unlike the VR kit of yore the Oculus Rift is compact and lightweight. It also plugs directly into any PC. And - critically - it's open source.
All of this is designed to make the creation of content for the Oculus Rift easy for developers, especially if they are adapting games that were written with 3D in mind. It's the same principle as Google making easy for developers access to the Google Play Android app store: the more content there is the more succesful is likely to be the hardware. And indie games studios in particular are very interested in the success or otherwise of the Oculus Rift. (See also: Plantronics GameCom Commander review: Limited edition gaming headset.)
Oculus Rift: bringing virtual reality to (some of) the unwashed masses
The Oculus Rift, then, brings virtual reality to the relatively unwashed masses. To a large group of people who could wash more often, let's say (and that's a reasonable description of creative types). And that in turn means that traditional gaming need not be the beginning and end of it. Especially not before version 2.0 of Oculus Rift hits the market, offering HD viewing instead of the current relatively low def vision (that's one of the down sides of only having $16 million).
Specialmoves is not principally a games developer, for instance. But the creatives there are interested in using the Oculus Rift to add a virtual reality element to 'experiences' at events, or to create virtual showrooms for people selling high-end cars or even homes.
I was shown the Oculus Rift by Specialmoves' founder Pascal Auberson, creative director Jon Biggs and head of business development Hannah Locke. They showed us a game-type world that you moved around using an Xbox controller - the Rift can't track real movements. And we also had a go on a rollercoaster ride simulation.
My first impression of the latter was... wow. I am left cold by 3D. If I can see the stereoscopy at all it merely gives me a headache. But the combination or all-round vision, 3D and noise-excluding audio meant that my stomach lurched as the Rift took me over the top on the rollercoaster.
Which is not to say that the experience was an unqualified success. For one thing the headset is not comforable to wear. It's big and heavy - not as heavy as the old school VR headsets, but heavy enough. And it takes some adjusting and tweaking before it feels comfortable. There are a variety of lenses, too, but you'll still have to keep on your glasses is you are visually challenged. To be a commercial success with consumers version 2.0 needs to be more of a gadget and less of a bondage toy.
Another improvement for version 2.0 should be HD. We've mentioned it before, and it will almost certainly rectified next time around, but having a 720p screen right next to your eyes doesn't help with the old disbelief suspending. We're just used to more pixels per inch, these days.
Overall then, my experience of using the Oculus Rift was intriguing, without blowing me away or making me feel like I needed to go back for more. But it did open my mind to the potential of virtual reality.
Virtual Reality: the next big thing in sport
Here's an idea: think of all those people who pay to go into Wimbledon and then watch the Centre Court action on the big screen on Henman Hill. With an Oculus Rift headset you could virtually place them in a seat in the main stand. Indeed, Sky TV would love to sell you a Rift headset and your choice of seat at the next Super Sunday game, wouldn't they?
Or what about experiences. You may want to visit the Louvre or Tate Modern, but perhaps you live in an exotic far flung place (you know, Scunthorpe or Doncaster). You could explore your desired attraction from the comfort of your own front room.
There's a long way to go for VR and for the Oculus Rift. But there's definite potential for this tech, which is not something I necessarily thought before I took a ride on that virtual rollercoaster. See also: Xbox One preview.