Oculus Rift Review
Oculus Rift Crescent Bay – the latest iteration of the VR phenomenon
It’s fair to say I was a big fan of the Oculus Rift well before Crescent Bay was even a glint in inventor Palmer Luckey’s eye. Actually it’s fair to say I’d sell my house, car and pet cat for the consumer version once it (finally) arrives. I’ve tried a few VR headsets in my time and none have excited me as much as the Oculus Rift since I donned the first clunky prototype back in 2012.
There’s been significant evolution since that rather low-res and nausea-inducing DK1 (Development Kit 1). Crystal Cove – the second prototype of the Rift or DK2 – increased the resolution to full-HD, added positional tracking and an OLED screen. The OLED screen by Samsung (the same one the Galaxy Note 3 totes) brought an increase in resolution and low-persistence into the frame.
Low-persistence makes a huge difference to the experience. It decreases motion blur which reduces nausea or ‘simulator sickness’. This is also helped by the lower latency. It means you can keep the Oculus on your head for hours rather than minutes at a time.
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What is motion blur and low-persistence?
A combination of factors cause motion blur – the effect that makes moving objects blur. On the Rift even ‘static’ objects get blurred because your head movement shifts what’s on screen. So text on a virtual sign, for example, blur as you move your head even though it’s ‘fixed’.
Displays, whether CRT, LED or OLED, work by displaying static images (frames) in fast succession (refresh rate), tricking you into thinking everything is moving as in real life. Eyes don’t work like that though, they are analog. Motion blur occurs because your eyes are jumping around tracking moving objects across the screen while the screen is refreshing. Persistence leaves the image on the screen for some milliseconds making it looked blurred to your eyes that have moved on. Then there’s latency (how quickly a pixel changes) and a whole host of other factors which we won’t go into right now in case you start nodding off.
The first Oculus Rift suffered significantly from vomit-inducing motion blur
Low-persistence helps reduce motion blur by reducing the time an image stays on screen – the persistence of the image. In the case of the Oculus Rift Crystal Cove and Crescent Bay this was achieved by flickering a black screen between frames (another way is by increasing the refresh rate or Hz). This is imperceptible to the human eye (you won’t notice the screen going black) but significantly reduces the motion blur effect.
In fact Mark Rejhon from motion blur experts Blur Busters tested the persistence and found that DK1 matched most 60Hz LCD TVs and monitors with a 16ms persistence at a movement speed of 960 pixels per second. A 120Hz gaming LCD monitor halves this to 8ms while the Oculus DK2 lowered it even more to 2ms.
That’s all well and good, but what does it all mean in the real world?
We played several sessions of EVE: Valkyrie and Elite: Dangerous using the Oculus DK2 and found them to be incredibly immersive. I experienced no ill effects, but my colleague felt a little queasy after a few 15-minute sessions of intense dogfights in space.
Crescent Bay is the latest version of the Oculus Rift and the best yet.
So what’s new? The people at Oculus are pretty tight lipped about the specs, but the most important aspect, the screen, seems to have had a lift. We can’t confirm the resolution, but graphics look crisper and motion blur is even less of an issue.
We expect the screen on Crescent Bay is the same 1440p display as the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, even though Oculus didn’t provide any confirmation of this. That would mean a resolution of 1440 x 1280 per eye. Regardless of whether there’s been a lift in resolution, the demo we saw was a big step forward in comparison with anything we’ve experienced before in the realms of VR.
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Set in a small dark room – with a square grey mat at its centre that we were asked to keep inside of – the demo lasted around 10 minutes and didn’t include any direct user control. We could look around but not influence proceedings to any significant degree.
The first noticeable improvement was Crescent Bay’s lightness and how securely it sat on my head with a minimum of fuss or fiddle. This feels like a VR headset that won’t strain your neck muscles, even after prolonged use. You still have to deal with cables, which Oculus had expertly managed in the demo room to minimise issues. Cables are a limiting factor when you consider that you need to be tethered to a PC. Still I was turning 360 degrees during the demo without being pulled back by a tight cord.
The headphones might look like no-frills flight ones but work well
The other major addition are the the headphones. In the past we’ve used the Oculus with a third-party headset, adding to the weight on your noggin. On Crescent Bay these are mounted on the side that hover just over your ears. These provide 3D audio, an important addition for any 3D environment. It’s a virtualised rather than true 3D surround sound, but good nevertheless. It gives you both a sense of location and direction.
The camera that first made an appearance on Crystal Cove has been improved on Crescent Bay. This still sits opposite you but can now track 360 degree head movement thanks to small white squares dotted all around the headset. Where the DK2 would lose you and need to recalibrate if you rotated your head too much we found Crescent Bay to be rock solid. At least for the brief time we had with the latest version of the Rift.
Crescent Bay has white dots on the back so the camera doesn’t lose head tracking
That’s not to say I didn’t test it. I shook my head violently left, right, up and down to get text to blur, the Rift to shift from its optimal position and to get the head tracking to lose me. But, try as I might to break it, everything worked perfectly and looked spectacular.
The impressive demo consisted of several environments lasting about a minute each.
The first demo puts you inside a huge museum, where you think you’re content looking around the exhibits. Suddenly, a T-Rex comes lumbering around the corner.
The beast looked magnificent and offered a sense of scale you’ll never get on a monitor or even an 85-inch TV. The 3D audio also added a new dimension I hadn’t realised was missing on the DK2 demos I’d tried. I turned towards the rumble to see the T-Rex as it came into my field of view. Audio cues will become a major aspect of game design if VR takes off.
Next, I find myself on an alien planet where a grey alien stands opposite me. He lifts his hands and waves. And I instinctively wave back.
Quite how idiotic I looked from the outside waving to a wall I’m not sure. What I found incredible was that I waved back without even thinking about it. I didn’t care how I looked – this is a level of immersion you won’t find anywhere else in gaming or film.
Oculus’ next demo positions me precariously at the edge of a skyscraper. I can hear the wind whistling past my ears as I look at the people hundreds of metres below.
I felt a little vertigo but not too much. That’s possibly because the cityscape had a steampunk, Bioshock aspect to it rather than a real-world look.
Other parts of the demo included a ‘magic-mirror’ where a ghost-like mask matched my head movements, a claustrophobic submarine and the cherry on top of the incredible VR feast – a demo of Unreal Engine 4.
This was the closest thing we got to a traditional game experience, but was again on rails with no user input.
Finally, a futuristic city-scape is the midst of a battle, where soldiers are firing on a giant insect-like robot. But everything is in slow-motion. A car is hit by an explosive and gracefully flips over my head, while pieces of debris and shrapnel float slowly past.
This was undoubtedly the most spectacular of the demos and gave us the clearest indication of what a first person shooter could look like using the Oculus Rift. It was nothing short of astonishing.
With no release date in sight for the Oculus Rift we were once again left wishing that a consumer version was available. It’s understandable why Oculus want to make sure everything is perfect for the final version to help ensure success. But we’ve seen far worse products hit the shelves and achieve moderate success. Look at the swathe of smartwatches with limited function out there if you want an example.
We’d take Crescent Bay as is right now, but the tightly controlled demo may still hide general usability issues that only come to light when using the Rift for hours at a time. We’ve spent longer periods with DK2 and found that the experience became exhausting after 45 minutes to an hour.
Oculus Rift DK2 was tiresome for long bouts even with the low-persistence improvements
The problem was the sheer immersion, the weight and heat of the headset strapped to you and that the latency. Reduced though the persistence and latency was, it still racked up after a while to cause some disorientation.
All these issues are fixable, though. In fact many have already been further addressed in Oculus’ latest incarnation of the Rift.
We suspect there are still a couple of problems that Oculus will hope to solve before releasing a consumer version. Further reducing latency and persistence in one. The more responsive the experience the more ‘natural’ it will feel. Oculus has already made significant inroads to sorting this.
The second is more problematic. In an ideal world the Oculus Rift would be wireless – not bound to a PC or console with cables and even easier to use with the accessories like the Virtuix Omni that allows movement in a set space. Quite how close Oculus is to that ideal, we don’t yet know.
Lips remain tightly sealed regarding an Oculus Rift release date or even the release of DK3. We’ll keep you posted with news.
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