I tested the Oculus Rift the other weekend, and I have to admit; I feel a little guilty now. This sceptic has seen more than enough so-called “revolutionary” videogame peripherals fail miserably in the past; glittery gimmicks hyped way out of proportion that enjoyed their five minutes of fame before being condemned to the scrap heap of videogame mistakes, along with the diabolical Virtual Boy, and that infernal Trance Vibrator. Indeed, even though the Oculus Rift has been praised from industry vets like Cliff Belzinski and revered beardy man Gabe Newell himself; I remained cynical, adamant that I wouldn’t be impressed until it was released to the public, and allowed to speak for itself.
However. After seen it for myself and getting a chance to test it in person; I have to admit it. I may have been very, very wrong. The Oculus Rift really is an exceptionally impressive piece of technology. I’m still sceptical about how it will actually fare in the market, but my time with the Oculus has more than assured me that whether or not it is a commercial success; this is something that should be taken very seriously indeed.
On the day of the preview I was given the choice of a couple of different games to try. I chose Hawken for my first go; and soon enough I was sat down while one of the Oculus PR people polished the lenses with some disinfectant wipes. Seeing it properly for the first time, it bears a resemblance to an overlarge snorkel mask crossed with night vision goggles, and putting it on was a little jarring as the head straps were pulled and tightened, and a screwdriver no less was jammed in the side of the headset to adjust the focus. It did feel quite natural once it was all adjusted, but that’s not the point.
Vastly more important is what I saw in the handful of seconds, the first ever time it was placed on my head. Once the headset was fully on my head there was a second or two of disorientation; as what before was nothing more than a screen with two tiny discs displaying the game’s image, had suddenly grown to completely fill my field of vision. There was a further period of disorientation and blurriness while my headset was adjusted and brought into focus, but suddenly the images merged together properly, and the true effect was produced. An effect which was as immediate as it was impressive.
I honestly was taken aback by just how immediate and powerful the effect was. There’s almost no delay while your eyes become adjusted to the new experience; as soon as you put it on your field of vision is completely filled by the screen, and the 3D effect, while slightly dizzying, is equally quick to come into focus. The head tracking again is instantly responsive, and the whole headset seemed as though it needed no calibration for a new user, aside from adjusting the focus. When a pair of headphones was clamped around my ears to block out any outside sound, the sum of all these parts was a sense of impressively deep, almost total immersion; yet what was equally impressive was the fact that it started to feel natural very quickly, too.
Interestingly then, the most difficult thing to get used to with the Oculus was not the disorientation from the new screen, but rather how to use the head tracking technology properly. Obviously, as gamers, we have been conditioned for years to control games with dual analogue sticks; left for moving, right for looking. So when I first sat down, my first piece of advice was “try not to use the right stick; you won’t need it as much as you think”. And he was absolutely right; as I was piloting my mech around the map I realised that if I wanted to look at something to my left, or above my head, or centre something in my vision, literally all I had to do was look at it. But even knowing that; it was hard to break the habit of using the camera control to do so; and this is probably the most disconcerting thing that I had to get used to.
However that itself is a minor point when the head tracking technology itself is taken into account; as this is arguably the most impressive thing about the Oculus Rift. Virtual Reality headsets have been around for a long time now, but what none have been able to do up until now is track your movements; and while the screen on the Oculus Rift is a standard well above any previous attempts; it’s this head tracking technology that seals the deal. Once the headset was on, I was told to move, look around, and get a feel for what it’s like, but in reality there was practically nothing to get used to. The tracking is so responsive that there is no lag to speak of, and the stability was another impressive factor, as at no point did I see the slightest hint of any stuttering, screen tear or frame rate drops; it was quick, responsive, smooth, and more than anything else, accurate.
As I’ve already mentioned there was no calibration to be done when I sat down to test the Oculus Rift, and moreover I never got the feeling that where I was physically looking and the image on screen were ever misaligned; the camera was always focused on what I would actually be looking at, had I actually been piloting a giant, armoured mech. To the point where I could glance left or right when attacking an enemy and see my chain-gun and cannon roaring, or I could look down as I glided above the desolated urban landscape. I could even physically turn on my chair in the expo centre to look behind me; and the headset even showed me the rear metal wall of my cockpit. As clichéd as it sounds, it really did feel like I could’ve been sat in the cockpit of that mech, such was the level of responsiveness
All in all; I’d say my doubts about the Oculus Rift have been well and truly dashed. In my opinion, never before has one singular piece of equipment contained so may advanced features; the screen, which completely fills your field of vision, the 3D effect which is dizzyingly impressive when applied to such an extent; the surprisingly accurate motion control and tracking. Any one of these features could be considered a technological step forward independently, but put them together and you have something that really is game-changing. Although I’m still skeptical about how this will fare whenever it does finally go on general release, after all no price tag has been announced, and although many developers have bought in to the idea of the Oculus already; complete reliance on third party development is always a dangerous idea. One only has to take a look at how the Wii U has fared to understand that developers will always be reluctant to develop games for highly specialized consoles and peripherals.
However despite my reservations, there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Oculus Rift is n gimmick. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the technology contained in this odd-looking little headset really is the most exciting thing to happen to videgames since the invention of 3D graphics. Whether it’s got the potential to change the industry in the same way remains to be seen; but I for one am excited for the future like never before.