Dabe Alan

The Oculus Rift dev kit is here! After a weekend of play, it’s time to answer your questions

The Oculus Rift dev kit is here! After a weekend of play, it’s time to answer your questions

The Grid. A digital frontier. I tried to picture clusters of information as they moved through the computer.

What did they look like? Ships? motorcycles? Were the circuits like freeways? I kept dreaming of a world I thought I'd never see. And then, one day… I got in.

-Tron Legacy

The Oculus Rift development kit has been arriving in the hands of developers, VR enthusiasts, and hackers for a few weeks now, and the reaction has been as if a UFO has landed on the lawn of a conspiracy theorist. Everyone knew working virtual reality was coming at some point in the future, but suddenly it's in our hands. I've never seen so many dedicated people get to work on so much content so quickly.

I've spent all weekend playing games, tech demos, messing with drivers, and showing a wide variety of people the Oculus Rift, and I wanted to take some time to answer your questions. This technology is much more exciting to me than any of the upcoming consoles, and it has the potential to change the way we play video games. This is not hyperbole.

All this from a $300 piece of hardware. Let's get started.

How good is the game support? Are you finding enough games to play?

There are some really neat tech demos and experiences that allow you to jump right in. The Tuscany demo is simply a rustic house that you can walk around and explore. Not much to see, but it's a simple and welcoming way to get used to virtual reality. There is also a roller coaster someone created that snakes around the Epic Citadel demo that gives you a very impressive sense of speed and motion. Those two demos are a great place to start.

Outside of those few experiences you can begin to play with an open source driver that allows you to play games like Half-Life 2, Mirror's Edge, and Dear Esther, among others. You'll need to do a fair amount of fiddling to get these games to work and feel good when using the Rift, but it's time well spent. Jumping from building to building in Mirror's Edge is a rush, and Dear Esther feels very personal when you feel like you're actually exploring the island, looking up at the cliffs and gazing off into the distance.

The developer kit has been available for a very short time, and already the amount of content that's available and its quality is surprising. There's a good amount of stuff to play, and since the development kit gives you access to the Oculus-specific versions of the UDK and Unity, it's a snap for developers to begin creating content for the device. We're already starting to see some small-scale projects being released as everyone learns what works and what doesn't.

Based on the enthusiasm of the developers I've spoken to already, there's nothing to worry about when it comes to support.

Is it hard to hook up?

Not at all. After being warned by the Oculus team so many times that the develompent kit is for developers and not the public, I wasa little worried about how much expertise I would need to use it. But setting up the hardware itself is a snap.

You can connect the breakout box to your PC via an HDMI or DVI cable, one of each is included, and you then also connect it to your PC via USB. The next step is to plug it into a power outlet. The breakout box is connected to the Rift via a single long cable that you can snap onto the headstrap to keep it out of your way. Once everything is adjusted the single cable goes from the headset, to the side of your head via a small clip, and then down your back to the breakout box, making it easy to move without being distracted by the cabling.

I do wish that the cable between the breakout box and the Rift were removable; right now it seems like you'd need an entire new headset if your dog chews through the cable. No fun.

My PC recognized the Rift right away, you set it to clone your existing monitor, and there you go. You do need to have a monitor hooked up to use the Rift, as your desktop is not set up to deal with virtual reality. You need to open games using your monitor, and then pull the headset over your eyes once the game or demo has begun.

I would say it took me less than five minutes to hook everything up the first time.

Does the headset come with built-in headphones? I've never been clear on that.

It does not, so you’ll need to bring your own headphones. The more outside sound your headphones block out, the better the effect will be. On the other hand, the more scary it can be when someone taps you on the shoulder to try to get your attention.

While some people really like using high quality ear buds to fully enter the game world, I’m using a pair of wireless PlayStation 3 headphones. They’re easy to slide on and off, there is no wire to get in your way, and I can still hear a bit of what’s going on around me as long as I keep the volume down.

Not including audio was a smart move. It keeps the cost of the Rift down, we all have different ideas of what makes good heaphones, and many of us have already spent a good amount of money on headphones we enjoy.

Is it immersive to the point that you get reflex actions to in game stimulus. e.g. If a punch was thrown at you did you ever have an instinctual reaction to move your hands to block rather than press a button?

Yes and no. I showed the hardware to about six other people recently, with varying degrees of video game knowledge and skill. We hooked the PC up to a bigscreen television so we could see what the player wearing the headset was looking at, but the person in the game would often still point to things they wanted to show off, as if we were all in the same space. It’s a weird thing, but it feels natural to look at something and then point to it with your finger to tell someone else to check it out.

During the roller coaster demo many people brace themselves by grabbing the sides of their chair. Another player drew her legs up close to her chest in fear when things got too intense. During scenes of fast movement and vertigo, even when it’s enjoyable, it can be hard to talk.

Is it a disorienting “out-of-body-experience” kind of thing?

Yes, because you can feel your body in the “real world,” and you’re aware that you’re moving your hands and legs, but nothing changes in the game. Holding your hand up to your face  makes your arms “feel” invisible. One of my friends described it as having phantom limbs. Games like Mirror’s Edge that allow you to look down and see your virtual legs, and you grab onto things with virtual arms, make this easier.

Stimulus from the real world can be unsettling and disorienting. Having someone touch you while you’re playing a game is hard to take. We would often have to guide someone’s hands to the mouse and keyboard or wired Xbox 360 controller, and while we did so, the best thing for the player to do was to close their eyes to minimize the dissonance.

Do you eventually see past the comparatively low resolution of the screen? It seems like it would impede the immersion.

The Oculus Rift has a resolution of 1280 x 800, giving you an effective resolution of 640 x 800 per eye. That is disappointingly low, and the way the image is displayed leads to a very noticeable “screen door” effect, where each individual pixel is very noticeable, to the point where it can look like you’re viewing the game world through a screen door. I have yet to show the dev kit to someone and not have them remark on these two things immediately. The resolution is a problem, as are the murky blacks and motion blur. I've been told many times to expect a better screen in the retail hardware.

The dev kit's screen issues are offset by the fact you have a field of view of 110 degrees, which gives you an incredible sense of actually being inside the game. You have some peripheral vision when wearing the Rift, and the sense of looking through two tubes that plagued earlier VR headsets is gone. The head tracking is also smooth and responsive, so the illusion of being inside the environment of each game is very effective.

Your brain is very good at filtering “bad” information, so after about five minutes of playing a game or tech demo the screen door effect and low resolution cease to be problems. The experience will be improved dramatically with a better screen, especially considering the motion blur you get when looking around, but the Rift does enough right that the things it does wrong don’t break immersion.

I can’t stress this enough: You feel like you’re inside these places, and that’s a very hard feeling to describe, or to get used to.

If there's a really sad part in a game and I cry, will it break?

No, the screen is inches from your eyes, and protected by the thick lenses in the eye cups. If you cry, the tears will run down your eyes, but they may get caught in the foam that blocks the light from your face.

If you look at the picture below, you can see the mechanism that allows you to move the screen away or towards your face. This allows you to wear glasses comfortably, but it also shows how far the actual screen is from your eyes. Tears may get on the lenses between your eyes and the screen, but these are easy to remove and clean.

How often, if ever, do you get motion sickness with it? It's rare for me, but a recent onset in a game makes me wonder.

This is going to be something I can’t really tell you, since everyone is different, and you won’t know until you try. We played with six people, and what made me sick was fun for someone else. A demo that my friend found enjoyable made me incredibly ill. The sense of in-game movement, combined with the fact that your body is not moving, is hard to deal with. Your brain knows it’s not moving, your eyes are telling it that you are moving, and that can make you sick.

I have a series of torture tests set up that really force this issue, and there has yet to be a person I’ve been able to put through the gauntlet that doesn’t get ill at some point. That being said, close your eyes and the feeling disappears, although you may still feel sick for a few minutes afterwards.

I would say that if you have motion sickness easily you should stay away, but a friend of mine who hates roller coasters loved riding a virtual one while wearing the Rift, so I don’t know. This is new stuff, especially with this quality, so it’s hard to say how you’ll react.

How bad is it with glasses? Or astigmatism?

I’ve never had a good experience with the Rift fitting my glasses during demos, but once I had my own unit I could spend more time adjusting things, and I’m very pleased with the results. The dev kit comes with three sets of eye cups, so if you’re slightly near-sighted you can pop a different lens in and it should help, but I’m legally blind without my glasses.

As we've shown above, there is a dial on either side of the headset that allows you to move the screen away from your eyes, and this allowed me to wear my glasses comfortably while also wearing the headset. Moving the screen does decrease the field of view somewhat, but the trade-off is worth it. If you have glasses you’ll need to spend some time fiddling with the dial and straps to get everything where you like it, but I have no doubt you can make things comfortable for yourself.

A friend of mine has astigmatism, and he wore his glasses with the Rift with no problems. In the future it’s possible you’ll be able to order prescription lenses for the Rift, or you could always wear contacts.

Out of the six people who played with the Rift during our big demo night, half of us wore glasses. No one complained about it.

How do you boot up games into it? Any difficulty configuring games/tweaking settings?

It’s not hard, but I also wouldn’t call it easy. Do you know how to install mods? Can you find the folder for your Steam games? Are you comfortable replacing .dll files, or manually editing the settings in text files for the Unreal Development Kit? It’s all relatively easy stuff for the inititated, but it’s definitely not plug-and-play for many games.

Tech demos and games that were designed from the ground up for the Rift work with no issue, but playing existing games is harder. You may need to install a few mods, mess with console commands, or simply adjust a number of settings. This will get better as time goes on, but right now it can be a fiddly experience to get games to work.

My question is whether excessive use of the Rift can lead to perceptual adaptation and disorient you?

There were many questions about this: How long can you play? Is it hard adjusting to the real world? Should you drive a car immediately after playing a game?

Again, this is going to vary from person to person. I’ve stayed inside for over an hour at a stretch, and it’s tricky to adjust to reality again after a session that long. Most people who played games for over 15 minutes at a time told me they felt “weird” after taking off the headset, to the point where you still keep the sense of being in a virtual environment. Some said they felt dizzy for awhile after leaving the game.

I would recommend frequent breaks, and giving yourself some time to acclimate to the real world again after long sessions. Your brain is not used to moving between such different environments this quickly, and there is definitely a learning curve to moving in and out of the real world. We tried to close our eyes as we fitted the Rift over our eyes, and then opening them once the demo had begun. That helped.

The good news is that the Rift is much more comfortable to me than a 3D movie, and there is very little eyestrain. It doesn’t feel like you’re looking at a screen inches away from your face, it feels like you’re focusing on faraway objects. Playing a PC game on my 3D monitor or seeing Avengers in 3D felt more stressful to my eyes.

What about neck strain?

None. The headset is light, and once you properly adjust the side and top straps it feels very natural to wear. I never experienced any pains in my neck. It’s also very likely that the retail hardware will be even lighter, which is great news.

I bet I need a beefy computer, right?

It depends on what you want to play. Keep in mind that you only need to run these games at a low resolution right now, so that removes a bit of the strain. But you do need to be able to run the games and demos you want to play at 60 fps to ensure the head tracking looks smooth. I have no doubt that the release of the retail kit will be a very good thing for companies that make video cards.

I was able to run everything very smoothly, but I’m also running a moderate to high-end gaming PC. You can also turn down a bunch of the bells and whistles to get the desired frame rate. The more you play around with things, the better the end result.

So be honest, is this just a gimmick?

Keep in mind I'm playing with a development kit, and interacting with demos and content that are days old in some cases. These are the very early days of the Oculus Rift, and it's only going to get better. That being said, this is much more than a gimmick.

The ability to place yourself into a game is incredible. I moved my gaming PC and the Rift into our dining room and invited my kids to play with it, and the results were as good as I'd expected. My daughter shrieked and laughed as she flew through the roller coaster. My son enjoyed shooting at enemy robots and feeling like he was a futuristic soldier.

It's easy to feel like Neo when you can literally change the rules of your environment with a few console commands. “Daddy, I'm tired of walking, can I fly?” my daughter asked me after 15 minutes or so of exploring Epic Citadel. I grabbed the keyboard, brought up the console, and typed “fly” then “slomo 12” to give her a good speed.

She looked up at the sky, her finger pressed the W key, and she took off. She flew around the level, diving under the bridge and flying around and around the spires of the castle. All she had to do was turn her head, and she flew in that direction. “Watch me!” she told me, going into a dive and pulling up right before she hit the cobblestones.

The screen will get better. The software support will improve. The games will get better. But even now, with the early work being done, the experience of the Oculus Rift is unlike anything else. I had the wonderful moment of standing next to my daughter, watching her fly around an medieval village. It felt wonderful. It felt like the future.

Any questions? Ask in the comments!