It has been four years since Oculus raised $2.5 million towards developing the Rift VR platform; now, with one of its consumer headsets in my hands – I can say with certainty that it was worth the wait.
The presentation of the Rift is a far cry from its chunkier development kit predecessors. The all-black plastic and fabric design is noticeably lighter and sleeker than its main rival, the HTC Vive, and everything in the case adheres to the clean lines and rounded feel of the Xbox controller that is included among the peripherals. Oculus’ commitment to industrial design even extends to the packaging, with a premium, sturdy case that makes it quick and simple to set up and pack away.
While I was initially impressed, my experience soured slightly when I tried to put the headset on. I was able to put on the HTC Vive and Gear VR on without any difficulties while wearing my glasses; with the Rift, my glasses snapped from the pressure as soon as I put the headset on. While resuming testing was as simple as putting in a pair of contact lenses, it was a costly reminder that glasses wearers are not always considered when it comes to virtual reality design.
Once the headset was on, it was easy enough to adjust but, for it to sit comfortably on my head, I had to accept that there would be a constant band of light along the bottom of the headset. Although this didn’t hugely affect the VR experience, it was a minor annoyance throughout my time using the Rift.
The VR audio earphones, however, are excellent. As well as being easy to position so that you can benefit fully from the 3D immersive sound, they can also be flipped up in the event that you need to listen out for a doorbell or want to keep a conversation going while you’re in virtual reality. While they can also be swapped out for your own headphones if you’re after peak aural feedback, having them as a default with the headset is a massive advantage over the wire-heavy demands of the HTC Vive.
Due to the performance requirements of the headset, a high-end PC is a must. Despite this, the set up process itself isn’t too hard and is fairly intuitive for anyone who has set up a games console before. Again, there were a few frustrations – notably, the wireless adapter for the Xbox controller was too wide for the PC we were using and blocked nearby ports – but it took far less time to configure and get into the virtual experience than other high end gaming platforms we’ve tested at Connected Lifestyle.
Plugged into the Matrix
Once in VR, the interface was visually arresting and similar to that of a premium games console. The idea of sitting down and using a traditional controller while in virtual reality was initially off-putting; the stand-and-move approach of the Vive is much more natural means of control.
That said, since most Rift games were designed with the Xbox controller in mind, this doesn’t feel particularly strange once you are in-game. Hopefully, the Oculus Touch controllers will improve the experience when they are introduced – but the Rift is still an impressive platform even without them.
In terms of gaming, VR titles have rarely tended to achieve the scope and ambition of PC or console efforts – but there is evidence that is changing. While some of the experiences we trialled were mediocre replications of standard console games – Lucky’s Tale felt like a child-friendly knock-off of Crash Bandicoot, for example – the more ambitious efforts rewarded the player. In particular, Eve: Valkyrie was a phenomenon, a fully sensory experience that recreates the cockpit effect in a more realistic way than anything I’d tried before.
A rollercoaster experience
Motion sickness is the elephant in the room, however; despite having a fairly robust stomach, I found myself feeling a little queasy when I came out of a couple of VR experiences on the Rift. Oculus actually rates the games in its library based on their likelihood to induce motion sickness, which highlights the problems that VR still has in dealing with latency issues.
In terms of price, the Oculus Rift is a sight cheaper than the HTC Vive, retailing at £499 rather than £689. This doesn’t include the Touch controllers, though; they will need to be pre-ordered separately. Additionally, there is a significant waiting list for potential customers: orders placed in June were not expected to be fulfilled until August. Like the Vive, the Oculus Rift deserves its place at the top end of the VR market. However, there are a couple of things – light bleed, controller issues and an occasional sense of motion sickness – that put a dampener on an otherwise beautiful experience.