I am floating in front of a snow-capped volcano, staring at the white flakes gently falling. Are they snow? Or ash? Below, the mountain drops away, plunging down down down and sloping steeply into precarious view. Thick dark plumes bellow from the top of the volcano, glowing angry hues of fiery yellow as they roil upwards. It is 3D, and it is beautiful.
At PAX, I was lucky enough to try one of only very few in the entire world full 1080p Oculus Rifts. It was my first VR experience, and first experience with the new Unreal Engine 4.
After waiting for over half an hour in a tiny line, we were ushered in to a black curtain draped stall at the back of the hall, as if seeing something as clandestine as the Saints Row 4 demo. We were treated to the atypical salesman’s pitch, coming from an enthusiastic Nate Mitchell, no less, and then sat down with a box to strap on our heads – “just like ski-goggles”, Mitchell told us.
So here I am, sitting down, but floating in the sky.
From the floating vista, I am teleported to the ground. It’s snowing, and I am standing at the bottom of a hill, looking towards an ancient temple. Well, I’m sitting. But I’m supposed to be standing. It’s a strange sensation, not having a body, and that’s what the Oculus Rift delivered to me. I was a floating pair of eyes.
Inside the temple now, and I am greeted by the warm glow of lava. It’s flowing in rivulets at where my feet are supposed to be, viscous and not actually hot. A brooding demon is glowering at me from his stone throne, a vicious battle axe at his feet. He has feet. But as I turn my body awkwardly in my chair, I can see down the long corridor to outside. A white light that shines in to the dark, through rocky pillars. And I am struck by how deep everything feels. I am not looking at two rectangular screens in front of each of my eyes, I am staring down an ancient hallway at an escape. Despite not being in the VR world, I am given a sense of what the Oculus Rift is about – the magic when it all melts away.
According to some pals I was with, who had tried the regular Oculus, the 1080p version is a huge step-up in terms of visual fidelity, and I can see why they’d say that. In HD, the Rift delivers a delightfully crisp image. Image detail is discernible, with textures looking smooth and, well, textured. There’s a slight issue with seeing the grid of pixels each screen is made up of, which does remind you that you are looking at a screen. Mitchell told us of his disappointment that OLED screens are not yet available to the team, but I imagine that tech could make a huge difference.
Less pleasant was how jittery the screen was. The slightest movement would cause the image to move – which is a good thing in and of itself. Unfortunately, it is paired with motion blur, resulting from latency issues. Every time your head moves, your eyes have to reacquire their focal point, and the screen updating slightly too slow makes each movement feel inelegant. Mitchell did repeat that we were in fact using a prototype, and that they were still looking in to lowering the latency. And I trust that they will improve it – they have already made huge strides in providing affordable VR.
Mitchell told us that they were working on implementing head position tracking, to expand upon the current vertical/horizontal viewing changes. It sounds like the Oculus team are reacting to the feedback provided by developers and early adopters, and trying to make the unit more feature rich.
The most bizarre part of the experience was the total disconnect I had from my body. I’d swing my arms up to swipe at a falling snowflake, but see nothing. Or I’d look down at my body and be puzzled when I couldn’t see it. It was a disconcerting, uncomfortable feeling – one that led to a lack of immersion for me. Mitchell did tell me that they were interested in working arms into the equation at some point, although that’s a theoretical target for the time being. I can definitely see how it would be a big challenge to implement limb tracking, but they seem determined to work something out.
Overall, I enjoyed my time with the Oculus. When I forgot my awkwardly twisted body and the way I had to contort it in that little chair to see my full surroundings, the Oculus Rift was great. When the team can iron out the expected prototype issues and deliver the full 1080p headset onto the market, I expect it to be talked about thoroughly. The Oculus Rift certainly feels like a glimpse into the future of entertainment, a promise that is being delivered slowly but surely.