The Oculus Rift: Seamless, if not Perfect, VR

It's been a long time coming. Years in fact. Ever since I first laid my hands on my Oculus DK1 - and thereafter through many, many hours with my eyes ensconced in a DK2 - I knew one day I'd be holding the first consumer VR headset by the company that arguably started it all: the Oculus Rift CV1.

by Augmentl, 18th April 2016

I wasn't even expecting it. With all the shipping delays and component shortages, I'd received little communication from Oculus regarding my early pre-order. When I finally did, I was given a mid-May shipping date. Yet, as soon as I resigned myself to waiting yet another month, boom: shipping notification. And two days later, my CV1 was in my hands.

I've now had the luxury of an almost unbroken week-end with my new toy, and I am ready to commit my thoughts to the screen. So without further ado, here are my impressions of Oculus's first commercial offering to the world of Virtual Reality.

The Product

The first thing one notices is the level of polish Oculus have managed to put into the product's physical design, starting with the unboxing experience. The Rift comes in a gorgeous box that seems to follow some of Apple's best practices in terms of materials and form: the thing is smooth, an onyx black carry and storage case where every panel and storage compartment has been meticulously crafted to cradle its contents both securely and attractively.

The headset itself is remarkably well built, with its unusual textile exterior giving it a warm, welcoming feel from the first moment it's in your hands. Once removed from its box's cradle, the Rift immediately feels light yet robust, being built around a fully rigid frame instead of the elastic straps found in its earlier iterations and, oddly, still found today on the HTC Vive.

The Constellation camera and included remote also look and feel premium, with a mix of matte and shiny black plastics adding a subtle textural definition to both. Overall, the entire Rift package feels premium, yet solid. Even the included wireless Xbox One controller does not feel out of place.

The Setup

A breeze. Plug in the camera and headset, Position the camera where it can see you, run the Oculus Home setup, go through a quick setup and calibration routine, and you're good to go. It could hardly be easier, provided you have the right USB 3.0 ports available and a rig meeting the Oculus recommended minimum specs:

  • NVIDIA GTX 970 / AMD 290 equivalent or greater
  • Intel i5-4590 equivalent or greater
  • 8GB+ RAM Compatible
  • HDMI 1.3 video output
  • 2x USB 3.0 ports
  • Windows 7 SP1 or newer

The Fit

This is an aspect I have not seen discussed in very fine detail. The Rift is, as has been mentioned many times, extremely comfortable. But, in order to take advantage of that aspect, one needs to first achieve a good fit with the headset. And while it's not rocket science, here is a good place to start in making sure you get the best fit possible right from the start (If you have not yet received your Rift, I suggest saving this for future reference):

  • Loosen the top strap completely and let it hang forward un-velcroed
  • Loosen the side straps completely and make sure they're pulled out as far as they go
  • Put the rift on, and hold the back triangle over the back of your skull, just above where it meets your neck.
  • Let the Rift dangle low over your face. Now while holding the back triangle pressed against your head, use your other hand to grab the top strap's dangling velcro and pull it up and back to slowly raise the rift to where you can see clearly. Then go a little further, and lock the strap down. That's your top strap adjusted.
  • If the rift drops too much after you let go, un-velcro and raise it a bit more.
  • Finally grab the side straps' velcro ends with both hands, and pull GENTLY until you can barely feel the rift press against your face. Lock 'em down.
  • Adjust the tilt, and you're good to go.

It's a lot easier than it sounds, but it's not the most intuitive of setups for someone who's used to using elastic straps to secure a HMD to their face. The Rift's rigid frame requires some finesses in adjusting, but the result is an excellent, light fit that makes it easy to forget you're wearing anything at all once immersed in VR.

Once a good fit is achieved, you just need to use the included slider to configure your Inter Pupillary Distance using the appropriate software setup screen, and you're good to go. From then on, you put the Rift on, and take it off, like a baseball cap.

The Display.

Let's get one thing out of the way: you will see "god rays," "smudges" or "lens flares" straight away. They are annoying as hell. For a bit.

These visual artefacts, visible primarily when bright light sources are shown against dark backgrounds, are the result of the Rift's use of hybrid Fresnel lenses. The HTC Vive has them too, although the latter's more coarse lens ridges makes them look more like bright rings. The bad news is, these artefacts are here to stay, they are bothersome, and they are the most evident in the early stages of the Rift experience thanks to Oculus' bizarre choice of relying on high-contrast white-on-black text in all their calibration and setup screens.

The good news is, once in a VR experience these artefacts tend to disappear from conscious notice, and do not generally impact immersion. It is clear however that developers will have to steer clear of specific high-contrast scenes in order to side-step this issue across both Gen 1 VR platforms.

God-rays aside, the Rift's display is crisp and clear. Colors are bright and vivid, but not overwhelmingly so. The displays' brightness level is comfortable for extended use, and black levels are pleasantly deep if perhaps not perfectly black. The Screen Door Effect which was so evident in previous iterations of the Rift (and which is still pronounced, if to a lesser degree, on the HTC Vive) is, if not completely absent, minimised to the point where it's no longer a detractor to the VR experience.

Oculus's choice of optics also results in a clear image across most of the lens, meaning that when looking around everything remains in relatively sharp focus. This in turn makes much more of the Oculus's total Field of View - which is itself slightly larger than the DK2's, if not dramatically so - actually usable, increasing the overall sense of immersion.

Overall, it's hard to argue that Rift's overall display and optics combination is just about the best available in this generation of VR. Not perfect, by any means, but perfectly viable.

The Sound

It's easy to underestimate the value of built-in headphones on a device like the Rift. From a comfort and fit perspective, the ability to simply pop those spring-loaded headphones over one's ears and get gaming - without fiddling with any extra cables or adding more weight onto your head - is something that once experienced will be hard to do without. It just works.

It therefore helps that the headphones Oculus chose to go with are of excellent quality in terms of both build and sound. In fact, the positional audio they are capable of delivering is so precise that one of the Rift's free launch games, the vastly underrated Farlands, has a whole game mechanic built around it: you can discover tiny alien bugs (almost too small to see) to catalogue simply by pin-pointing their sounds, and it works every time.

My go-to headgear is a pair of Beyerdynamic MMX-300's (Over 200 of your British Pounds in value), and I have absolutely no desire to reach for them once I'm in the Rift. Truthfully, after having experience the combination of convenience and quality the Rift's built-in audio solution offers, I believe that overlooking this aspect of VR was a huge miss for the otherwise excellent and capable HTC Vive. I'd be surprised of all furture generations of VR headsets don't provide a similar integrated audio solution as the Rift's.

The Experience

This is how you operate the Rift:

  • You put it on
  • You pick a game
  • You play.
  • You take it off.

That's literally it. The headset turns on when you wear it, turns off when you take it off. While in it, the Oculus Home software lets you buy, install and play whatever games are available. No mess, no fuss. It's an incredibly seamless, well-designed experience right down to the transition between games, Oculus home and vice versa, with graceful fade-ins and fade-outs smoothing out the whole experience.

Which makes the limitations of Oculus Home all the more evident. Unlike the Steam digital distribution platform at the core of the HTC Vive's software discovery and management experience, Home is still a bare bones library and store interface. There's a Friends List that's currently all but unused. There are no sharing features to speak of. There is no search.

But Steam has had decades to mature, and its VR interface still lacks a lot of polish. We can expect Home to develop rapidly, although to what extent its pretty walled garden will grow is anyone's guess. With Oculus selling the hardware practically at cost, and relying on a cut of software sales for a profit, we can at least count on the company's motivation to make Home a success.

It's also worth bearing in mind that, while Home is undeniably the smoothest way to launch VR experiences, it does not prevent you from running VR applications outside of it (provided to enable that option in the settings). Rift users are in fact free to download apps from anywhere, or launch them directly from Steam itself should they choose to. Between Home and Steam, Rift users have access to the biggest software collection available in desktop VR today.

The Software

In the past two days I managed to complete Adr1ft, a truly gorgeous zero-G experience remindful of the movie Gravity, and spend some time in Elite: Dangerous, Eve Valkyries, Lucky's Tale, and Farlands. I also enjoyed Oculus Story Studio's made-for-VR shorts Henry and Lost, as well as the adorable and funny Invasion.

I won't go into an in-depth review of these, as they have been discussed extensively elsewhere, but suffice to say a newcomer to the Rift has a broad selection of VR experience across multiple genres to get started with, from passive entertainment, to third person platformers, to truly immersive first person experiences.

The Oculus launch catalog feels like a solid collection of titles which, while lacking the novelty and added immersion of the HTC Vive's room-motion-controlled demos, nevertheless show real investment and variety in the VR gaming space, and prove without a shadow of a doubt the viability of traditional controller-driven experiences in VR, both as sitting as well as standing experiences.

That said, it is clear that the Rift is currently only half of what it can be. With the Oculus Touch still several months away, Rift owners will have to sit by and watch as HTC Vive users enjoy the new and exciting experiences that fully tracked motion controllers can offer. But, these experiences are still somewhat raw, and with a few notable exceptions (Hover Junkers and Budget Cuts come to mind) they fail to raise above the level of novel technical demo.

By the time Touch lands in the second half of the year, we can expect those experiences to have matured somewhat, and be worth the extra $150-200 the controllers can reasonably be expected to cost. And with its high quality display, superior comfort, and superb audio solution, I expect the complete Rift and Touch package will, by the end of this year, define the base standard for future VR generations.