If you're interested in science fiction or futurism, you too would be excited about the concept of virtual reality. After having spent around two weeks with the Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2, we're happy to say the future is closer than ever.
It's not quite the Matrix, and it's not quite the Holodeck from Star Trek, but the Rift DK 2 is today probably the closest you can get to actually living inside a virtual world. The Rift puts a huge, reactive display in front of your face - a virtual world where you can look around just by turning your head.
The road to consumer VR has been filled expensive failures, including most famously the Nintendo Virtual Boy - a wearable so heavy it came with a built-in stand and an eye-jarring red-monochrome display.
The Virtual Boy was an idea far ahead of its time, but in 2012, Oculus launched a Kickstarter to fund development of the Rift, and raised a then eye-watering $2,437,429. The company was acquired by Facebook, in March this year, for $2 billion. Last year, the company released the first version of the developer kit and earlier this year came the second prototype of the Rift for developers, which includes a new head tracking mechanism.
The Rift DK 2 is an unusual product to review, because it isn't something that most people can - or maybe even should - buy. The Rift is still very much a work in progress, and the DK 2 is meant for software developers who want to create apps for virtual reality. It's not readily available - Oculus is accepting pre-orders right now, and you can book a Rift DK 2 for $350 (approximately Rs. 21,000). The next batch of units is only expected to begin shipping from October.
The question that the Rift DK 2 raises is - who and what is VR for? Many believe that the consumer version of the Rift will be announced this year, and go on sale early next year. Right now, there are still some definite shortcomings with the Rift DK 2 that Oculus will want to address in the consumer version, but the early steps are incredibly reassuring.
What is the Oculus Rift?
This might seem like a very basic question, and if you're already familiar with the Rift, you can safely skip ahead to the next section. But if you're hearing about it for the first time, here's a very simple primer.
The Rift is, very basically, a helmet that includes a screen, so you have a display right in front of your face. This is - at a very basic level, similar to other head-mounted displays like the Sony HMZ family of products. Since the display is pretty much all you can see when you have the Rift strapped on, the effect is not unlike viewing a big screen television from a distance of 8-10 feet, instead of feeling like a tiny screen held close. One of the ways in which the Rift is different is the fact that it houses lenses between you and the screen which add a spherical distortion to the image. This helps create a sense of depth and perspective.
The Rift connects to your computer's HDMI port, and replaces your monitor - 3D TVs and 3D monitors can also come with goggles that you need to wear, but in this the 'goggles' themselves are the entire package. When you wear the Rift, you're looking only at the screen inside the headset.
The Rift also updates the display at a very high rate - the low latency is critical for immersion, and making the experiences feel real. And from a user perspective, what really sets it apart is the motion tracking that comes with the Rift. Using an infra-red camera - a little like the Xbox Kinect - the Rift is able to track your headset and accurately follow small movements of your head.
When you wear the Rift, and run a compatible application, your view fills up with a virtual world. When you look up, the view shifts, so you're looking up in the virtual world. Looking up or down, side to side, or tilting your head at an angle to the sides or forward can all be tracked.
What the Rift does not track, is the rest of your body. To play the games and experiences that come with the Rift, you need to use a keyboard and mouse, or a gamepad. This means, for example, in one demo, we could stand beneath the Eiffel Tower and crane our necks upwards to take it all in - but to reach the Tower itself we had to use the keyboard arrow keys like in any game. In another demo, a horror game, we were gingerly bending our head to peer around corners.
There are some interesting efforts being made on that front to build more intuitive controls, and the latest involves integrating a Leap Motion Controller, so your hand movements can be tracked as well.
The first thing you'll notice about the Rift DK 2 is how light it is. The whole thing weighs 440g - only marginally heavier than some headphones. The weight is also well balanced, and so the Rift does not feel uncomfortable to wear.
The Rift DK 2 also looks very sleek - with smooth plastic and rounded edges compared the blockier Rift DK 1. Despite this though, it's pretty big, and there's no denying that you will look very strange when wearing the headset.
It's essentially a box strapped to your face, with a lot of wires coming out of it, leaving you looking like some sort of cyborg.
On the inside, there's a lot of soft foam padding to keep you comfortable, and the Rift forms a near complete seal around the upper portion of your face, ending at the bridge of your nose. There's a little gap at the very bottom of the Rift - not enough to distract you from the experience, but it's big enough that you can just about find the mouse or keyboard. Your view is completely filled with the two spherical lenses, and once the Rift is running, that's all you should be able to see.
All the padding means that the Rift is very comfortable, but in a country like India at least, humidity is an issue. Wearing the Rift for an extended period starts to feel quite hot, and the lenses get fogged during sessions that lasted longer than half an hour.
Aside from the headset, the Rift also includes a small infra-red camera that you can clip to your monitor, or place on top of a tripod. The camera has to be pointed at the front of the headset at all times. This is because there are IR-emitters in the Rift headset, and the camera uses this to track the position of the user's head. It can tell which direction you're looking in, so you can turn, look up and down, or even move your head back and forward or tilt it to a side. This is translated into movement within the Rift apps, and the whole experience is smooth and highly accurate.
This is also why Oculus advices that people shouldn't put stickers on the face of the headset - it could interfere with the positional tracking.
At this early stage, the biggest problem for the Rift is setup. The Rift DK 2 headset comes with two wires - USB and HDMI, which need to be connected to your PC. The camera also has a USB cable, and another to connect it directly to the headset so as to sync the two.
The Rift comes with two sets of lenses - the 'A' lenses are fitted in the Rift and are designed for people with normal vision. If you're very nearsighted, you can instead use the 'B' lenses rather than trying to wear glasses with the Rift. Oculus recommends wearing contact lenses instead of glasses in case the 'B' lens doesn't help you, and we'd agree - trying to wear the headset with glasses is really uncomfortable. Changing the lenses in the Rift DK 2 is easy and you can just twist to remove and insert.
In case you don't have enough USB ports, you can connect the camera's USB cable directly in the Rift headset, but for this you need to connect a power cable to the Rift as well. If you connect the camera to a PC, then you don't need to use the power cable.
This means that before you've even switched the Rift on for the first time, you've put together four to five wires, and that's just the start of the setup process.
Once you've got everything connected, you have to install the Rift SDK. This should get the Rift configuration tool up and running, but it didn't detect our headset. We found that this was a common problem - the solution is to exit the software, and then manually launch the configuration tool instead of the launcher.
After you do this, the going gets a little smoother, but not much. Just about everything you want to do on the Rift takes a little experimentation, a little tinkering. Want to experience Half Life in VR? Sure, go right ahead, but be prepared to spend an hour reinstalling Steam first, because it will not run out of the box. There are dozens of demos available on the Oculus website, and around half of them worked on the first go. The rest crash suddenly, or take a fair amount of tinkering - sometimes you'll need to change the settings on the Rift, and at other times, you'll want to change your PC display settings to get things to work with the Rift.
Two weeks in, we're still doing setup - and that's fine, because this is a developer product. We sincerely hope that the actual consumer headset will offer a more plug-and-play experience, as Oculus has been promising.
From what we saw on Wednesday at the Samsung Unpacked 2014 event at IFA, where Samsung along with Oculus released a VR accessory for the Galaxy Note 4 called the Gear VR, this might actually be happening.
The Gear VR launched with a VR store called Oculus Home, where you can discover, download and launch VR content. That means that users don't have to go back and forth between VR and a normal display to get to their content. Another really exciting feature is called Oculus Cinema, a virtual movie hall where you can play 2D or 3D movies, in a variety of theatre environments.
The Rift DK 2 uses the same screen as the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 as its display, and the resultant images are extremely crisp, with bright colours. After complaints of a screen-door effect on the original dev-kit, this is a definite step up. Add the spherical lenses, and the view from the Rift fills up your vision. Even if you move your eyes, you shouldn't see too much of the dark edges of the headset. This goes a long way towards making you feel like you're really there, and that the tree in front of you really does tower over you, instead of being about an inch tall and less than half an inch away.
But a great display doesn't sell the virtual reality experience - if it did, we'd all be wearing HMD's like the Sony HMZ-T2 instead of buying large screen televisions. What makes the Rift so compelling is the speed and accuracy with which it tracks your movements.
The slightest turn and tilt of your head can be accurately reflected on screen, and this makes a huge difference in how "real" the experience feels. In one of the demos, a very basic horror game type of experience called Crystal Rift, we ended up physically leaning around corners to see if there were any monsters waiting for us. In another demo called Don't Let Go, you're just supposed to hold on to the CTRL keys on your keyboard, and not let go of them no matter what. The game does its best to scare you off the keys - it starts with a bee buzzing around your face, and then starts to fill the space with buzzing flies. After a while you'll have a spider climb up your virtual arm, and then a dinosaur walks into the room and roars at you. The sounds circle around your head and you'll try and turn to keep things in view, and some of it can be genuinely scary.
One of the more unexpected experiences is the VR Cinema demo - you can load any video file on your computer, and the app creates a virtual cinema hall you can sit in by yourself to watch the film. You can see other chairs, and the stage under the screen - and the result is that it really feels like you're watching a movie in a cinema (alone), instead of a tiny screen next to your face.
VR seems obviously well suited to gaming and while some fast paced games can be a little disorienting, in general, a wide variety of games work really well. But there are a lot of other kinds of apps people are making for the Rift as well. You've got VR browsers, educational apps and virtual tourism. You can walk around on the International Space Station, and the demo does a really good job of making you feel like you're there.
The Rift DK 2 has a very sharp display and extremely smooth and accurate motion tracking. The combination means that you feel fully immersed in the reality that you're currently experiencing. You'll need a moderately powerful computer to push these experiences - don't expect your office laptop to handle the load, but at the same time, it doesn't require you to have a top-of-the-line gaming machine either.
The system requirements vary from app to app, obviously - running Skyrim in VR is quite different from running Flappy Bird.
It's clear though that the success and failure of the Rift hinges on making this clear. If any app does not run smoothly on your computer, the experience will be very disorienting. Slight lag can make you quite uncomfortable, and it would be interesting to see developers come up with demos that actually make use of this effect intentionally - for example, a game might intentionally throw you increasingly further out of sync as you take damage, to create disorientation.
Unintentional lag is a different issue though, and unless users have already experienced some of the simpler demos which actually run smoothly, they might be inclined to blame the Rift for the feeling of disorientation caused by their computer not being able to handle the load.
In terms of hardware, the Oculus team has already done a very impressive job, and the real challenge it faces now is in providing a refined and simplified experience to users in terms of software.
Simply put, the Rift DK 2 is not easy to use. As a developer tool, that's fine, but the consumer version is going to need to deliver a simple plug and play experience. And more than that, they're going to need to provide an easy way to get new apps.
Thanks to mobile phones, we're all too used to the idea of app stores where you can buy compatible software easily, and this kind of plan would be ideal for the consumer Rift as well.
What's good is that the Rift already has a huge range of software available. This ranges from modded versions of existing games, to games built from the ground up for VR, to unique experiences and demos.
Want to relive scenes from your favourite movies? Maybe you'd like to walk around Jerry's apartment from the hit show Seinfeld? Rift's got you covered. Maybe you want to experience the Internet as a mall you walk around in, with each store being a different website. Sure, why not? And hey, if you want to be an Orc hero trying to free Skyrim from dragons and the Thalmor, that's an option too.
The Oculus Rift DK 2 is an amazing piece of hardware, and while it's far from ready for consumer use, it delivers a highly compelling experience that shows exactly how easy it is to get lost in VR. From a gaming perspective, there's no doubt that this is one of the most interesting new pieces of hardware in a long time, but even outside of games, it shows a lot of promise.
The little we saw of the Gear VR suggests that the team at Oculus also recognises this - there's already a full section for movies, and the team is clearly thinking about making it easy for people to find the right content. This is a very positive sign, and the consumer version of the Rift will likely launch with similar software support.
We wouldn't bet on the Rift instantly setting the market on fire - it's still too expensive to be an impulse buy, and non-gamers will take a little more convincing. But we're cautiously optimistic that the consumer version of the Rift really will be a game changer.