The evolution of the future: hands-on with the latest version of the Oculus Rift
The Oculus Rift VR headset has changed significantly since we last wrote about the hardware we saw at QuakeCon, and at PAX Prime I was able to sit down with the team at Oculus to see the next generation of the hardware. They stressed that the finished developer kit will be much cleaner than the hardware we were able to use at PAX, but there had already been much work done to improve the design and usability. The cabling has been cleaned up significantly, the hardware on the front of the unit had been organized to make it look more like a finished piece of hardware, albeit one without a plastic shell, and it was much lighter than the previous unit I had tried. If you look at the images from our original story, you can see the vast improvements in the fit and finish. I praised the newest headset, but Oculus' Palmer Luckey waved away the compliment. “The jump from that to this, and then from this to the developer kit? It's going to be crazy,” he said. They called my attention to the single cable that connected to the top of the headset. “We have a really nice cable,” Nate Mitchell, the VP of product for Oculus VR, told me. “That HDMI cable is actually really thick. We have a lighter cable that's much nicer.” Both Mitchell and Luckey can walk you through the hardware and name all the different ways things will improve before launch, including the HDMI port itself, which will be lighter. Everything can be shaved down, made better, improved. I was also able to see the latest version of the breakout box that powers the Rift. The hardware came in a bulky box that sat on the desk, but Luckey opened up the prototype to show how much of the hardware could be removed to create something that's much smaller. The Rift itself will require a single cable that runs to this box, and then the box is connected to your PC. In the developer kit they said the box will become something like a pendant that you could wear around your neck or clip to a belt; it will be much smaller and lighter. I was also able to see an example of the optics that allow you to focus on the screen that's so close to your eye. “This is a cut lens. The optics are a little bit different [in the working hardware], but that’s very similar. If you look at it, you can tell it’s not a perfect curve. It gets flatter as it goes. It’s not a perfect sphere, it’s a non-linear curve,” Luckey said. He described the challenges of making larger optics that deform as they cool. Like the images in the Rift, the optics are simply poured incorrectly, and as they cool they deform predictably into the correct shape. Luckey proceeded to pop my glasses on his own face to test my prescription, and wondered aloud how I could see anything. I do, in fact, have a very strong prescription. This is what it's like to live in a world where everything is a solvable problem. “Your glasses actually have the opposite effect of ours, since they bow out,” he explained. “So you’re actually losing resolution when you look at things like computer monitors. I wonder if we can change the optics so that you have like, super-acuity at the center. But I can’t do that, because I’m doing this.” He motioned to the Rift, as if he was sad he didn't have the time to give me super-vision. Luckey also said a good strategy for the developer kit is to buy a pair of inexpensive glasses, pop out the lenses, and affix them to the front of the included optics. For $30 extra you can hack together your own “prescription” Rift. Here comes the fun part, playing Doom 3: BFG Edition. Not much has changed; the headset is lighter and Luckey said that they're working on a system where he can use a microphone to speak to people through the headphones as they play. It's also to get wrapped up in the game, and there's no simple way to communication with people wearing the headphones yet. “You don't know how many members of the press we just lose,” Mitchell said. Once you put on the headset and the headphones, it does feel like you leave the room you're physically inhabiting and exist in the game itself. It's hard to remember that there are other people around in the “real” world. When I watched the hand of my virtual space marine reload my gun, I felt a wave of vertigo since my own hand hadn't moved. My brain was having trouble separating what my real body was doing in contrast to what I was seeing and hearing in the virtual world. The lighter headset and improved cabling makes it much easier to move your body while you play. “Do you want to sit or stand?” Mitchell asked me. I told him I'd prefer to stand, since that posture allowed me to match the fact I was playing a standing character in the game. “Good man,” he said. Wearing the new headset, with Luckey talking to me in the background, was jarring. During longer playing sessions your brain tries to make sense of two sets of inputs: The real and the virtual. I'm a little scared of how immersive the experience will be with noise-cancelling headphones, alone in your gaming space. The hardware has already improved by leaps and bounds, and is set to become even better before the developer kits launch this December. We'll be reporting live from the field with our own developer kit from the Kickstarter, and I'm looking forward to sharing my thoughts on that version of the hardware. Until then, it's nice to see how quickly the hardware is improving.