Ask anyone in video games what new piece of tech has them most excited about the future, and there's a good chance they will bring up the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Good news: Later this year, developers (and the rest of us) will be able to own the latest, greatest version. And it really is pretty great.
Starting this morning, Oculus VR is opening pre-orders for their Rift Development Kit 2. It's an all-new headset, and a significant improvement over their DevKit 1, which people have been using to do all manner of stuff over the last year or so. The DevKit 2 (or "DK2" as the Oculus people call it) will be using the same technology in the "Crystal Cove" prototype that sent so many people into conniptions at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year.
The first Rift DevKit has been widely available for about year now. It wasn't made with consumers in mind, meaning you couldn't just plug it into your PC and immediately get to play sweet VR versions of your favourite games. Fortunately, most early adopters were game developers, programmers and modders, people who could get games like Crysis and Team Fortress 2 to work on the Rift (the latter with a treadmill for running!). By now, lots of games and other non-game things work with the headset, provided you know how to set up the software and get it all working.
But for all the cool stuff you can already do with the Rift, there was a lingering sense that the initial prototype hardware was holding things back. When would there be a higher-resolution version? How would Oculus come up with a way to combat the motion sickness that frequently set in after using the Rift? In other words, when would a new, improved Rift DevKit come out?
I tried the new Rift out yesterday and have some impressions of it, but before that, the news and specs:
- Oculus says the new Rift headsets will be available on the Oculus website for preorder starting right about now. The headsets are estimated to ship in July of 2014. They will be made available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
- The new DevKit still isn't the commercial version, and won't really be intended for the public. It's intended more for developers to start to learn how to make games work on a Rift. Of course, that doesn't mean that non-developers can't buy one...
- Each headset will cost $US350, $US50 more than the first DevKit cost. The extra $US50 apparently covers the included camera that tracks your head movement.
- The DevKit 2 will run at 960x1080 resolution per eye, totaling out to 1920x1080, or 1080p between both eyes. It will use a low-persistence OLED display with 6DOF positional tracking.
- Its refresh rates will be 75Hz, 72Hz, and 60Hz
- It will use a gyroscope, an accelerometer and a magnetometer for inertial tracking, and those sensors will update at 1000Hz.
- It will weigh 440g without its cable.
- The headset is still called the Rift, and it will always be called the Rift. "Crystal Cove" was just a code-name for the DevKit 2, but isn't the name of the actual headset.
- Just like the Crystal Cove prototype, DevKit 2 will be able to track your head's movements via the included camera (which you mount on a fixed point in the room), so you can lean in closer to objects in the game-world to make your view grow closer. It goes a long way toward making the experience more immersive.
- The new headset looks a touch different than the Crystal Cove prototype - it's now solid black. It's also a more streamlined form-factor from the first Rift, and looks more like how we've come to expect VR headsets to look.
- Here are a couple of official photos, along with a shot of me using it yesterday:
- And here's a somewhat-technical video from Oculus about what's new in the latest headset design:
So, Yeah, It's Pretty Freakin Cool
Yesterday at an event hosted at a space near the Game Developers Conference in downtown San Francisco, I chatted with a few folks from Oculus and tried out the new version of the Rift. (And what do you know, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey was there, too.) Overall I was really impressed by the DevKit 2, and had a hell of a lot of fun messing around with it. Some impressions follow.
New Rift > Old Rift
To begin, I sat down and tried out a simple demo on both the DevKit 1 and the new DevKit 2. I've mostly kept away from the original Rift, partly because I don't own one and haven't attended that many official Oculus events, and partly because I've wanted to keep my VR palate clean until the technology reaches a more advanced point.
The DevKit 1 demo was relaxing - I was sitting in a chair on a porch, looking out on a sunny ocean in a tropical paradise. I could turn and look behind me -- still something that feels revolutionary and finally makes it hit home that you're wearing a VR headset -- but the low resolution and somewhat blurry motion-tracking immediately felt a bit uncomfortable.
The same demo in DevKit 2 was a huge improvement. The screens are brighter and the resolution has taken a significant jump, and while there was still a sort of screen-door effect happening on everything, it all looked much clearer. I can't yet say whether or not that the softening of the image actually made the new headset more comfortable to use than if it had been sharper; I'd need more time with it to be sure.
My view tracked much more responsively when I moved around, and best of all, I could now lean in to objects and my view would move closer to them. If and when you have a chance to try out the new headset, I all but promise that the first time you do that, you'll freak out a little bit.
Putting My Head In The New Unreal Engine
The next demo I sat down for was based on the Unreal Engine 4 "Elemental" demo . It was in Epic's powerful new graphics tech, though that softened, screen-door-like effect was still present, so it didn't look nearly as sharp as Epic's engine demonstration videos have been. Again, though, the softness actually might help it be easier on the eyes -- until I've compared it with a sharper VR headset, I can't quite say.
The great big demon guy from the demo video was sitting in front of me on a throne, and down below him, a group of tiny little troll-things walked through a maze. I was about the same size as the big demon dude, so I could lean forward and get closer to the tiny figures on the board, using a game controller to trigger various traps that would burn them or knock them off the trail.
It's pretty wild to play a game that looks like a tower defence/real-tim strategy game but gives you the ability to lean in over the board and get closer to what's going on there. Embracing the cliché, it "put me in the game" in a disorienting, wonderful way - I can only begin to contemplate the various ways that existing types of video games could be enhanced with this technology, let alone virtual-tourist stuff, live concerts, movies...
Every time I hit the right trigger, a blue fireball would lance out of my head toward whatever I was looking at. It was trailed by a stream of white-hot particles, exploding out in every direction. Needless to say, I cast a lot of fireballs.
Tiny Knights Are Wrecking The Living Room
The last demo I played was a two-player game that put me in a virtual living room with another guy who was also there to try out the new Rift. When I first put on my headset, I found myself looking over at a couch with a horrifying, deflated man laying on it. I then looked down and saw that I, too, was a horrifying deflated man. It was unsettling, the kind of disorientation that... well, actually that would pretty naturally accompany the act of looking down and seeing that your body has been replaced by a broken crash-test dummy.
Once we were both set up, we looked forward and the DevKit 2's head-tracking camera got a bead on us. Both of our virtual bodies sat uprigt and began to move along with our heads. I leaned toward the other guy, and watched as his head moved around. Neat. And weird.
On the table in front of us (in the game) stood two colourful animated knights, one for each of us. Using my game controller I could pilot my knight around the room, jumping and swinging her (I think it was a her?) sword and shooting fireballs at my opponent's knight.
At first we kept our swashbuckling constrained to the coffee table between us, but soon the fight spilled over to the rest of the room. It became clear that I could pilot my knight anywhere in the room -- into far corners, knocking over lamps on side-tables, and even onto my friend's lap. When his knight jumped up onto my virtual lap, I flinched - this weird little thing was standing there, right in front of me, swinging a sword. Thanks to the DevKit 2's head-tracking, when I recoiled my view actually pulled back from the thing on my lap. Again, difficult to put into words, but uncanny.
I eventually sent my own knight off behind me, and I turned around to follow its progress. It was another of those "Dude, you are doing something you have never done before" moments -- craning my neck backward, watching a tiny creature run behind me through a room that doesn't exist.
I Didn't Want To Stop Playing
We played for a little while longer and I didn't want to stop. I still want to go back and play more, just to try to further get my head around this new experience, to try to get used to it.
In July, the dedicated among us will be able to own their own version of the new headset. I can't wait to see what they come up with as they start to experiment with it.
And hey, hopefully it won't be too long before Oculus finally releases a finalised, commercial version of the Rift. If the leap between the headset's first and second generation is anything to go by, the world of virtual reality is only going to get more interesting as we go.
Here's what I have to say to that: