Release date: February 29, 2016
Oculus has announced that it's accepting pre-orders for the final commercial version of the Oculus Rift, due to ship sometime next spring. Minimum system specs are also announced along with a free utility to verify that your machine meets their requirements.
Normally I follow the trailing edge of technology where the performance is contemporary and the price is low. But in this case I decide that I want to be an early adopter. I've been involved with VR since the early nineties when I provided technical sales support at Evans & Sutherland, the people who invented computer graphics for flight simulation and crystallography. VR is cool and I want this.
After a quick check of my finances I place my pre-order and start upgrading my system. I purchase the Geforce GTX 970. It meets minimum specs, has all the ports I need and is about the fastest graphics card you can get without being called a “Gamer.” This also means that I can run just about any adventure game my Editor, David, can throw at me.
I download and run the compatibility utility and it says my graphics are fine, but my USB ports are dicey and my CPU just doesn't qualify. The USB ports are important because they're receiving the head positioning data and any lag there would cause motion sickness. One PCIe USB 3.0 port adapter card later and they're green.
I also purchase a wireless controller adapter since I don't see that one is included.
But I am confused by the CPU specs. Is my CPU really unworthy? It's almost identical to their minimum spec with a 10% faster clock rate. The benchmark numbers they go by say my chip is 0.5% below the minimum requirement. Really? VR is a graphics-intensive application, not CPU. To upgrade my chip would require completely disassembling my system and installing a new motherboard and CPU. And for what? It's not like I would notice any increase in speed in any of my applications, let alone VR. So I let this one slide in the hopes that I can get away with it.
The last component I upgrade is the system hard drive. I get a 500G SSD drive and split it into a 150G C: drive for the system and a 350G E: drive for the games. I want to be sure the hard drive doesn't contribute to any lag. Copying the drive of a live system and getting the copy to work is an adventure in and of itself, but that story will have to wait for another forum.
It's now Spring and Oculus sends out an apology for not having sent out a delivery window to those who pre-ordered. This apology includes waiving all shipping costs and saving about $36.
Soon after I finally get my delivery window, and I can expect my system to ship sometime between June 20 and June 28.
In May, Oculus announces that a very limited production run will be provided to Best Buy and a few other retailers. Those who pre-ordered can get their system there before their scheduled ship date. I decide to wait and catch up on several of my reviews.
In a very welcome surprise, my Oculus Rift arrives several weeks early!
I carefully unpack everything and in my excitement, forget to take any pictures. The emails had shown a picture of those expensive metal camera cases with everything packed in foam. What came was a nice press-board box such as those used for wine glass sets. It may not be as fancy, but everything is there and unbroken.
Attached to the cover is a notice with the URL of the installation instructions. They are straightforward, guiding you step-by-step. I find myself on my knees for a while running cables (which are quite generous in their length) and getting everything physically placed and connected.
Then the time comes to install the software and calibrate the headset. The software installs without a hitch, but when I put the headset on for the first time, I discover two things. First, while the headset is built to fit most people's eyeglasses, my glasses are about one millimeter too wide. I can jam them in there, but they are definitely under stress and by the time I get them lined up with the headset and my eyes, there is skin oil all over everything. But I press on, figuring that I can work it out later, and that is when I discover the second thing – if you're the least bit warm, everything will fog up as soon as you put the headset on.
By that time, the evening is coming to an end, and everything appears to be working – headset, Xbox controller, remote and my Oculus account. I call it a night.
I think about the setup all day at work. I remember that I do own a pair of contacts that I used on-stage but haven't worn in five years. Wearing them should correct the fit and might help the fogging.
Once I get home I figure that everything is working, so I bring up the Oculus app and install Lucky's Tale, one of the free apps which come with the system. It starts downloading at less than a meg per second and there are two gigs to download. So I go to the drugstore to get some fresh contact conditioner.
Time passes as the game finishes installing and I give my contacts a thorough cleaning before popping them in. Then it is with some excitement that I don the headset and fire up the game.
And can't do anything because the controller is dead.
Off comes the headset; and the App, which had seen the controller yesterday, now declares it OFF. After reading the FAQs and searching the forums at the Oculus support site, the only suggestion is to uninstall the wireless adapter and reinstall the drivers. I do, and it works.
The game now plays. It's a classic platformer set in a 3D cartoon world. The interesting thing is that you have no ability to navigate. You can control Lucky and wherever he goes you just naturally follow. Too bad if the camera angle makes it almost impossible to get past the next obstacle.
But it works! I am frolicking within a virtual reality. But this is no time to get sucked into a game. The Oculus App works and I can install from its store. Now, on to Steam and my games there.
Steam already has its own app to connect you with the Store, Library and Community. But there is another app I need to install – Steam VR. Steam VR brings up the Oculus App and uses it to connect your software to the hardware. My library is now split into two lists – the regular list of games and those games which would run under Steam VR.
Everything seems to be good. All I need is a game to test it with. But by now my contacts are starting to really bother me. It is time to call it a night.
I had decided to use “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” as my test case. I already own it and it is supposed to support OR. But when I go to start it I find out that only the VR version supports OR and that is another $10 for current owners. I can understand this as it is the second full rewrite of the game, and the developers had given the first rewrite away for free (upgrade from Unreal 3 to Unreal 4). So I pay my money and leave the game to download (it is just as slow under Steam as under Oculus).
I run into a couple more issues, but they are fixed with a reboot or two. Windows, go figure. Finally, I start the game with everything working, and...
I'm standing on an abandoned railroad track. Trees had grown up all around and the wind waves their branches over my head. Everywhere I look is natural and realistic. Forget about suspension of disbelief, there is no disbelief to suspend.
Head movement is rock-solid. There is absolutely no lag no matter how quickly I turn my head. It looks and feels totally natural. Then I take my first step forward and immediately feel a little queasy. My eyes had just sworn on one stack of Bibles that I had moved while my inner ear had sworn on another stack that I had remained motionless. And my stomach is paying the price for their argument.
I tentatively explore the forest. I know that there are several traps back there which need to be found but won't hurt you (just scare the pudding out of you when they miss your face by inches). I try very hard to only move a little at a time while looking straight ahead in the direction of travel. That helps a little, but it is a losing battle. Time to put it up for the night.
I notice that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has a “Comfort Mode” to reduce motion sickness. This removes the ability to roam freely and replaces it with fixed points you can jump to. It works, in that I no longer experience any queasiness, but the jump points are predetermined and you can no longer go just anywhere you want.
Following some research I discover that there are several methods being used to reduce motion sickness, but none has been adopted as the standard. It's up to the developer to decide which one, if any, should be added to the game.
It is Saturday and I finally have everything installed and running. There is only one thing left to do – take it all apart and reinstall it.
Why would I do that after finally getting it all to work!? Space limitations. My C: drive is meant only for the Operating System and its utilities. It has about 50G available. My E: drive is intended for games. It has about 150G available. The VR games I've installed so far take up 8G-10G each. Steam lets me specify where to install each game. Oculus gives you no choice but to install the game in the same drive as the App. Mine was installed on the C: drive. It took a bit of research to figure this out, but I am left with no option but to uninstall the Oculus App and reinstall it on the E: drive.
One day and several reboots later and it's all working again, and everything is on the E: drive.
The moral here is that everything is fairly simple to install, but expect to spend some significant time troubleshooting.
Well, yes and no. VR is not a panacea which magically makes everything better. It needs to be the right tool for the right job. No doubt it will make for some kick-butt first-person shooter games, but we're mostly concerned with the Adventure Genre.
Where VR really shines is when exploration is involved. If you've followed my reviews, then you've heard me complain many times about node-point exploration which leaves you wondering where you are, what direction you're facing and what that orange thing is just off to your right. Open-world exploration helps a lot, but with VR there is just no question. Look around, look up, look down, go up to that orange thing and study it from every angle. You have complete understanding of your environment.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an example of where VR works. It's an open world and there's no question that you're there. You can go anywhere and look at anything as you could look at it in real life. Instead of constantly being reminded of your game limitations, you're there and just get into it. It can be truly magical.
Lucky's Tale is an example of where VR doesn't really add anything to the experience. It's very pretty, and it's cool to be in a 3D world, but does the game play differ significantly from Crash Bandicoot? As I said above, you don't directly control your position. You move Lucky around and the camera sort of follows him. So you can't explore or even line up the next jump. All the limitations of 2D are still there.
VR is its own experience and may not be compatible with the experience a game is trying to produce. The moving, artistic game NaissanceE advises, “It's highly recommended to play the game in normal mode the first time for a best experience.” And Among the Sleep just gave up and dropped support. They explain here how it just couldn't produce the mood they were looking for.
- The Oculus Rift is a very well-made piece of equipment that can deliver an amazing experience. The sense of immersion it creates is awesome.
- It takes some getting used to before you can move around comfortably.
- The lenses must be kept spotlessly clean or there'll be all kinds of distortion and artifacts.
- The ring pattern from the Fresnel lenses can be noticeable against some backgrounds.
- It's only effective for some games.
But still, this is cutting-edge innovation that deserves a grade of A.
OK, this is a great toy that has the power to transport you to new worlds as nothing else has in the past. But be warned – VR can mess with your head in ways beyond just your equilibrium.
Have you ever heard of a phantom limb? A person might have an arm or leg amputated. The limb is gone, but the subconscious hasn't caught onto the fact. It can itch. It can feel pain. But there's nothing that can be done about it. And the pain is very real.
It turns out that once the immersion reaches a certain threshold, the subconscious buys in and acts as if the body in the game is your real body. It doesn't matter what you believe intellectually, you now have a phantom body just like the amputee. And you're now at the complete mercy of the developer to respect that.
Playing a game such as Myst or Rhem should not be a problem. There's nothing threatening about them. No violence. No trauma. But what about Silent Hill? How many horror games have you played that gave you nightmares? Games that took several days to get out of your head? Now what if your psyche accepted them as real?
Virtual Reality can create real PTSD.
Fortunately, PTSD can now be treated with therapies such as EMDR. So I decided to take out an insurance policy. I found a local therapist and had a psychological baseline taken. Nothing was found rattling around in my brain and I was declared “Mostly Safe.” So now if I should have an experience which I can't seem to get over and my personality starts to change, I have someone who is familiar with my background who can help me work it out. This might have been overkill, but I've found that when you get insurance you rarely need it.
This also means that when I review a VR game (and David already has three of them lined up for me) I'll be giving it grades for intensity and safety along with everything else.
What's left? Well, I plan on getting a smaller pair of glasses by the end of the month, which will make the headset a lot easier to use.
Also, Oculus is planning on releasing their Touch system by the end of the year which will bring both of your hands into the game.
Welcome to the brave new world of gaming.
+ Kit has everything you need – headset, sensor, controller, wireless adapter, remote and cables.
+ Headset has built-in headphones for 3D sound.
+ Everything is highly adjustable.
+ Good graphics
+ Excellent head movement response.
+ Does not require a PC with cutting-edge gamer specs
- Takes some getting used to
- Expensive - currently $600 USD
- Artifacts from fresnel lenses noticeable
- Must be kept perfectly clean
- Oculus Store forces you to install games in the same folder as the Oculus App.