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Oculus Rift may be the beginning but certainly not the end for the VR era

25 Apr 2016

Now that Oculus Rift, the original VR concept, is a finished product, we are a bit disappointed to see it is a step behind in the race that it started

On the first day of August, 2012, Oculus launched a Kickstarter, seeking funds around $250,000. Instead, they raised more than $2.4 million. This unexpected turn of events started not one, but two revolutions. On the one hand, the project’s massive success proved people were excited about the prospect of virtual reality experience. On the other, it showed that Kickstarter can lift the fortunes of not just an entire company, but an entire category of products. Two years later, the startup was acquired by Facebook for a cool two billion dollars.


Now, the Oculus is a finished product, but is a step behind in the race that it started. Its Kickstarter was launched almost four years ago. That’s a long time for a product to be in development, and in that time the competition had a chance to strike. HTC’s Vive is now available, and there’s a number of less expensive headsets based on mobile hardware, including the Samsung Gear VR, built in partnership with Oculus. So has the Rift’s long development delays shot it past its time to shine? Here are our thoughts on the greatly anticipated VR wearable.



Hardware quality and design


You’d expect almost four years of development to result in a refined product. And at least the aspects of design do not disappoint. A special kind of fabric covers almost all of the head-mounted display, as well as a triangle on the rear of the headband. The fabric looks opaque, but is transparent to infrared light, which lets Oculus hide its internal sensors. While the headset appears sleek, with few individual components, it’s actually crammed full of A-class hardware. Every part feels light, yet durable, and seems tightly screwed together. The Rift’s hardware quality and design is without a doubt superior to those of HTC’s Vive. Most testers even found Oculus more comfortable than any other VR headset, including Samsung Gear VR.



A good first impression, but getting sick of the experience?


While the Rift’s initial comfort was excellent, motion sickness quickly became an issue. All VR headsets cause some disorientation, however, the Rift experience is probably the worst. The problem seems to be the combination of fast-paced, visually stimulating titles, and a seated position. The frequent occurrence of nausea during gameplay is often the result of something called cue correction. Basically, what your eyes see and your body feels aren't the same, and your brain tries to compensate. Oculus eliminates a lot of that with their impressive head tracking and 90fps visuals, but if something happens in the game that your body thinks is different from reality, then you are sure to feel motion sickness. This usually happens in racing games when your body doesn't feel the bump from the car beside you, or the slide to the left and right as you drift. For some testers it was little more than a lingering sense of vertigo, but for others, the problem was so bad it meant putting the headset down after a few minutes of play.

Samsung’s Gear VR is also seated and far less apt at tracking – but the games are generally limited in scope, and slow in pace. The Vive, meanwhile, allows you to move in real space while moving in virtual space, which eliminates any disconnect between what you see and what you feel. Oculus has landed at an awkward compromise with the Rift, and your stomach pays the price.



Are you seeing clearly enough to be impressed?


The Rift has an effective total resolution of 2,160 x 1,200 pixels. That sounds like a lot. But a VR headset places the screen just one or two inches away from your eyes, which makes pixels easy to pick out. Some companies, like AMD, say fully immersive VR must pack up to 116 megapixels into a phone-sized display. We’re a long way from that standard. However, clarity, while far from perfect, isn’t a major issue. Most games look crisp enough to remain impressive and what they lack in sharpness, they make up for with a 90Hz refresh rate and extremely effective stereoscopic 3D. The display provides an excellent sense of depth in every game and experience. The real problem is the dreaded “screen door effect,” a pattern of visible lines in the picture. Pixels have gaps between them, and when the gaps are too large (relative to viewing distance), they’re visible. Old computer displays often had this problem, but it went away as pixel density increased. Now, it’s back.



Mediocre game selection


If you do decide to go ahead and buy an Oculus Rift for about $600, you should know not to expect popular AAA titles. Designing a game for VR requires doing so from scratch, and right now there just aren't enough users for massive game studios to cater to this audience. It won’t be long though until we see some game development from those publishers, but for now what you have access to is quite limited. Eve: Valkyrie is the obvious headliner, a striking space combat game that looks awesome in screenshots and videos. But the developer, CCP, has overhyped the game. What you’ve seen in demos is almost the entire single-player content. BlazeRush is good fun, but it’s no more than a few hours of entertainment – the courses are basic, and each race lasts just few minutes. As for Apollo 11 Experience, the educational game is a good idea, but its tedious pacing, dull visuals and limited interactivity makes it less exciting.



Time to draw the line


From what we’ve gathered our verdict is clear – despite being elegantly innovative the Oculus Rift headset has failed to bring the future of virtual reality it promised. Back in 2012, when the current generation of virtual reality began to appear, you could easily lose yourself in it. The technology was new, unexpected, promising. It had flaws, but they could be excused because it was still in development. However, since then virtual reality has moved rapidly and we’ve seen our share of VR headsets. The initial wonder has been replaced with the expectation of a solid, everyday device. The time to dream of what VR can be has passed, and the time to show what it can do has arrived. The Rift was supposed to herald a new kind of experience. Instead, it bore a sense of disappointment and disorientation. Hopefully the intensifying competition will soon bring about progress to our ultimate escape from reality.