I’ve had my Oculus Rift DevKit2 (DK2) for over a month now, but have only today sat down to write up my first impressions. I had several deadlines drop around the time I received it (finishing edits on my second novel and tweaking a number of stories) and I also wanted to wait for the software and demos available for the DK2 to “catch up” with the hardware before posting my thoughts.
This weekend, I busted my DK2 out again and tried several of the slew of updated experiences that are available. I’m now comfortable posting my thoughts in a way I hope will make sense to those interested in both the Rift and the future of virtual reality experiences.
I want to start by saying I was tremendously impressed with the DK2 and I’m truly excited about where it might lead. While this first post include lots of comments about things that need to improve, this doesn’t mean I dislike it. I’m simply evaluating the Rift based on my own experience with the DK2 to suggest things that need to improve before I believe it will become a mainstream product.
Where is the Oculus Rift Now? (A Layman’s Impression)
As stated clearly on the Oculus website, the DK2 is not a final product. It is a tool for game developers to use when testing the software that will be available for the consumer version. Though this has improved in recent weeks, downloading demos is hit and miss (some work with a single click, others require trial and error configuration, and some just don’t work at all). The lack of any clear standard for virtual reality (VR) interaction means some experiences work great and others just make your head hurt.
The first problem I noticed when donning the headset was how it fit. It pressed painfully on my nose (others have reported this problem) and it took some finagling to get it to fit in a comfortable manner that didn’t also leave it loose. I started by taping a bandaid to the bridge of my nose (a decent hack) and that improved things, but it also took time to find the right “height” to wear the unit to ensure the screens remained clear (it’s now relatively comfortable without the bandaid). Finally, while the top strap is easy to adjust (using velcro) the side straps are troublesome and adjusting between users is a pain.
Second, even basic set up involves wires. A lot of wires. Cables run from the IR camera (which, contrary to the illustrations included, must be placed a lot further away than the top of your monitor) to the computer, to the headset, and everywhere in between. When you’re dealing with the Rift headset, the IR camera, and a mouse and keyboard, you’re going to have wires wrapping around each other constantly. Add a wire for your headphones, an XBox controller, and any other devices such as joysticks or driving wheels, and you’ve got a tangle that’s constantly threatening to pull something off your desk.
In a problem specific to the headset, the wires running from it, while thin, are heavy enough to be noticeable, and there’s no good way to situate them in a highback chair without them either getting stuck inside the armrests or tugging on your headset. The impression of those wires “pulling” on your headset is a constant reminder that you’re wearing it, and any reminder like that is enough to break what developers and VR enthusiasts have taken to referring to as “presence” – the zen state where your eyes are fooling your brain to the point where you temporarily forget you’re wearing the Oculus Rift.
Finally, numerous people on Reddit and elsewhere have reported that the lenses on the DK2 are easily scratched, especially if you wear glasses. For this reason, I’ve been hesitant to take my DK2 to work to share the experience with my co-workers and baby my lenses to the point where I scarcely dare to clean them. Another problem you’ll notice in a humid environment is that the lenses fog up, and cleaning them with a speck of dust on your rag can add permanent scratches. Caution is always warranted.
What Must Oculus Improve?
In my opinion, Oculus needs to address the issues above before they will have an accessible product that will appeal to the average person. Without knowing the specifics of the Consumer Version 1 (CV1), which is rumored to be coming out in the next two years, here are the improvements I’m hoping for.
Disclaimer: I have no idea how difficult these improvements would be or if they are even possible with current technology. I’m simply calling them out to show what I, as a consumer, would expect.
- Improve comfort. The velcro strap on the top actually works really well, and I’d like to see those on the sides too. Also, adjustable nose pieces would be a big plus.
- Make the headset wireless, presumably receiving wireless video from the PC. Having the headset wires getting hung up against your backrest, in your arm rest, or simply twisted around other wires is a constant issue in both practical terms and maintaining “presence”. While Oculus has stated the CV1 will be a seated only experience, those wires are still a problem.
- Improve the durability of the lenses. If you look at the screens of many modern smartphones, it takes a great deal of clumsiness to scratch them. The average consumer will not be pleased if they buy their CV1 (which may retail for upwards of $300 US), bring it home, and scratch the lenses within a day when they or (more likely) one of their children cleans them off.
- Find a way to allow the IR camera to operate closer to the user’s face. I’m comfortable saying the average computer desk places its monitor far closer than 5 feet (1.5 meters) from the user, the minimum distance required for the IR camera to operate in its ideal capacity.
- Ship the Rift with input devices (more on those in later blogs) similar to those developed by PrioVR, Sixense, and other companies. The biggest barrier to presence I’ve found is being unable to directly manipulate the environment in a natural way. I’ve found an XBox controller to be the easiest input device, but groping for a mouse and keyboard is a pain and constantly breaks the illusion the Rift presents. To put it in modern terms, the Rift feels, as the first piece of a new technology suite, like a new computer without a keyboard and mouse to operate it.
Why Am I Excited About the Rift?
As others have stated (and despite the improvements still needed) using the Rift for the first time is an experience that simply cannot be conveyed in words. You’ll read many reviews of the Rift saying things like “You just have to try it to understand” and, even as someone who describes things for a living, I agree. I do believe it to be a technology that will change how we interact with virtual worlds of all sorts and, once the comfort and hardware issues are ironed out, a consistent game design language is established, and additional input devices are available (VR gloves, 360 treadmills, and the like), the experiences it offers will be unlike anything we have ever seen.
In future blog posts, I’ll discuss what has and has not worked in the demos I’ve played as well as my own thoughts on the standards game developers should aspire to when developing applications for the Rift. As a preview, I’ll say that the “desk demo” that ships with the Rift is one of the best arguments for its epicness that I’ve tried (unsurprising, since it was developed by the same people who made the headset). Simply being able to lean forward, stand up, and look over and under objects on a virtual desk tricks the mind in a way that has nothing to do with graphical fidelity or niggling hardware problems.
Secondly, the three demos that have most impressed me are OceanRift (which simulates a scuba dive in shallow water), Radial-G (a racing game where you fly along a round pipe) and Titans of Space (a virtual tour of our solar system and beyond). All of these demos play to the strengths of the Rift as it exists now in different ways, and in the coming weeks, I’ll talk about what these demos do right and why they have me so excited for future experiences that follow the groundwork they build.
As game developers learn what interaction methods work and don’t, what improves presence and what breaks it, and what sorts of experiences offer the most immersion, I believe the Rift will change interactive entertainment as completely as the first home computers and later, first game consoles.
After many years, I’ll finally have the chance to experience Tron in the real world.