You pull a helmet over your head, and suddenly, you're inside a virtual world that seems completely lifelike. You can run around, fight, race and fly, doing things gamers have never done before. What was once the stuff of Hollywood fantasy is now becoming a reality. A startup called Oculus VR is creating personal virtual-reality goggles called the Oculus Rift for everyone to use.
Here's everything we know about the Oculus Rift so far in terms of specs, features, platform support and overall potential.
What is the Oculus Rift?
Invented by a VR enthusiast named Palmer Luckey, the Oculus Rift is a set of virtual-reality goggles that will work with your computer or mobile device. After he showed a prototype at the E3 gaming convention in 2012, Luckey founded Irvine, Calif.-based Oculus VR with Brendan Iribe, who became CEO. The two launched a Kickstarter project in August 2012 to sell prototype developer versions of the Oculus Rift, raising $2.4 million. Since selling out of the original Oculus Rift development kit, the company has launched a revamped $350 Development Kit 2 (DK2) model while continuing to work on its eventual consumer version.
On Mar. 25, 2014, Oculus VR was purchased by social networking giant Facebook for a combined $2 billion dollars. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that the headset "has the chance to create the most social platform ever," though we don't know how exactly the website will utilize the Oculus Rift. In an interview with Polygon, Luckey said that Oculus VR will continue to operate in its Irvine headquarters, and will use Facebook's backing to create a better, more affordable product.
How does the Oculus Rift work?
Picture a set of ski goggles in which a large cellphone screen replaces the glass. The screen displays two images side by side, one for each eye. A set of lenses is placed on top of the screen, focusing and reshaping the picture for each eye, and creating a stereoscopic 3D image. The goggles have embedded sensors that monitor the wearer's head motions and adjust the image accordingly. The latest version of the Oculus Rift is bolstered by an external positional-tracking accessory, which helps track head movements more accurately. The result is the sensation that you are looking around a 3D world.
What about augmented reality?
Augmented reality (AR) involves superimposing graphics over a view of the real world, such as a cellphone's camera or the prism display of Google Glass. Since Oculus Rift lets you see only a 3D world, and not the real world, it can't do AR. However, the execs at Oculus VR have said that maybe one day, they will add cameras to the goggles, allowing you to see the real world when you're not in a game. Such a setup would let you add three-dimensional graphics on top of the camera feed and allow for augmented reality. Considering what Rift creators have indicated in the past, this is not likely to happen with the first consumer version.
What's the latest news about the Oculus Rift?
Oculus VR unveiled the new DK2 version of the Oculus Rift at GDC 2014 in March. This version has a sleeker, more compact design than its predecessor, as well as a sharper resolution and enhanced overall performance.
The DK2 is based on the Crystal Cove Oculus Rift prototype, which was introduced at CES 2014. The Crystal Cove possessed a handful of new features, including a 1080p OLED display. It could track head movement across six axes instead of three, which allowed the device to track head movement and follow a user's eyes without drifting. It also operated with a lag time of only 30 milliseconds, compared with 50 to 60 milliseconds on earlier prototypes. This creates a smoother experience for the user, and allows for more lifelike animation to make its way from a computer to the Oculus Rift.
Do people experience motion sickness with the Oculus Rift?
Some users who try the developer version experience motion sickness and headaches. This is especially true for those trying demos at conventions or other events, since the unit's screen and settings won't have been customized to that person. It also takes some time for a person's body to adjust to the virtual reality. Your brain and body get tricked into thinking you are moving, when you are not. This disparity can make some people nauseous or give them headaches.
What about the "screen-door effect" of the Oculus Rift?
Because the screen is so close to your eyes, you can see the spaces between individual pixels, so it almost looks like you're viewing the world through a grid or a screen door. This effect should be minimized or negated with the improved screen that Oculus VR plans for the consumer version.
What are the tech specs of the Oculus Rift?
The Oculus Rift DK2 packs a 5-inch OLED display with a resolution of 960 x 1080 pixels per eye and a 100-degree field of view. The headset has a refresh rate of up to 75 Hz, with an internal-tracking update rate of 1000 Hz and a positional-tracking update rate of 60 Hz. Weighing in at just less than a pound, the all-black DK2 has ports for HDMI and USB 2.0.
The DK2 ships with a positional-tracking camera, which is designed to strengthen the Rift's ability to track your head movements. The goggles include multiple lens cups, allowing you to get a clear view of the action, whether you're near- or far-sighted.
The older DK1 model had a weaker 1280 x 800p display, though the screen was bigger, at 7 inches, and provided a 110-degree field of view.
Where can I buy an Oculus Rift?
You can preorder the Oculus Rift DK2 on the company's website, and orders will start shipping in July.
How much does the Oculus Rift cost?
The latest developer version costs $350. Oculus VR has stated that a consumer version will be "affordable," but has not yet listed a price. Analysts estimate that the price will not exceed $499, although there will be no way to know for certain until closer to launch.
When will a consumer version of the Oculus Rift be available?
Oculus VR has not announced a hard date for the consumer-oriented Oculus Rift. Initially, enthusiasts expected the product to ship by mid-2014, but given how much Oculus VR is still fine-tuning the device, it may be later than that. The device could hit shelves by late 2014, although early 2015 is not out of the question.
What makes the consumer version different from the developer kit?
Oculus VR has said the consumer version will have a higher-resolution screen — at least 1080p. The screen will also have better pixel switching, reducing head-movement lag. It will also have a head-position sensor to track not just how the head tilts and twists, but how it moves up and down or side to side if you move your whole body. The overall latency — the lag between head movements and the screen reacting — will also be reduced. All of these differences will contribute to a better image with a more natural feel that reduces the motion sickness that some people experience, Oculus VR says. There may be other improvements that the company hasn't announced yet.
Is Oculus Rift compatible with my game console?
The developer version of Oculus Rift is not compatible with game consoles, but only with computers (Windows, Mac and Linux) and certain games. The consumer version will not be compatible with game consoles either, but Oculus VR has said it is talking with console makers about enabling compatibility. However, given that Sony will be offering its own VR headset for the PS4, currently called Project Morpheus, we wouldn't advise getting your hopes up there.
Will Oculus Rift work with other tech platforms?
Oculus VR has said that the consumer version will be compatible with Android devices, though the company hasn't nailed down a date yet. So Android compatibility may not be available at launch, but through a software update later. Because the Oculus Rift is compatible with Linux, and Valve has been working with Oculus VR since the Rift was revealed, it's possible that the consumer version of the Rift will be compatible with Valve's upcoming Linux-based Steam Box gaming PC from Valve.
What computer games are compatible with Oculus Rift?
The Rift has support for two widely used game engines: Unity and Unreal Engine. The result is that many indie titles and several larger games are compatible with the developer kit. You can find many of these listed on the Oculus VR site and in the recently launched VR section of Steam, Valve's game download service. There are also fan-made modifications to particular titles to get them working with the Rift. Third-party programs such as TriDef, Vireio Perception and VorpX allow games that are not made for the Rift to work with it. There will likely be many more game announcements when the consumer version is launched.
"EVE Valkyrie" is a sci-fi space combat simulator, set in the same world as popular massively multiplayer online "EVE Online." At present, the game is likely to launch alongside the Oculus Rift as the platform's first exclusive title. Another developer has created unofficial mods for "Skyrim" and "The Elder Scrolls Online."
What are the minimum requirements to use the Oculus Rift?
The latest version of the Rift requires a computer running Windows 7 or higher, Mac OSX 10.8 or higher, or Linux Ubuntu 12.04 LTS or higher. The computer should have a processor with a minimum of 2.0 GHz and 2GB of RAM. The computer must have an HDMI or DVI port and 2 USB ports with which to connect the Rift's control box. Its graphics card must be compatible with Direct3D 10 or OpenGL 3, with the ability to play games at 1080p at 75 frames per second or higher. But the Rift is designed to work with 3D games, which could require even more processing and graphics power than the Rift itself requires. Be sure to check the minimum requirements for the games you are interested in playing.
How do I get the Oculus Rift to work with my computer?
Oculus VR has designed the Oculus Rift to be relatively simple to get up and running. Once you own the developer version and have unpacked it, you plug its control box into a power outlet. The goggles are already tethered to the control box with a 10-foot cable. Your computer should automatically detect the Rift and install its drivers, but you should then download the Oculus SDK (software development kit) to try some demos. You should then take the time to adjust the screen distance, find the lens cup that is best for you and run the configuration utility to adjust the image based on the actual space between your eyes (interpupillary distance). You can also adjust the brightness and contrast of the Rift's screen from the control box on the DK1, though the DK2 eschews the control box in favor of making adjustments from your computer. From there, it's just a matter of starting up a Rift-compatible game or one of the programs that makes a non-Rift game compatible with the VR headset.
Does the Oculus Rift have any non-gaming applications?
Filmmakers have begun to experiment with the Oculus Rift to make an audience member feel like he or she is part of the film — from being onstage at a recorded concert to seeing a whole film from a single character's point of view, complete with the ability to look around and explore each scene. Films like this could blur the line between cinema and gaming.
Does this mean virtual reality will finally become practical?
Whether the immersion and the quality of the experience live up to your definition of virtual reality is up to you. But the concept of an inexpensive 3D unit with head tracking means viable virtual reality has finally arrived, at least for computer gamers.
More companies are jumping on the VR wagon, too. Sony's recently announced Project Morpheus aims to bring virtual reality to living-room gaming, as the device will eventually let gamers become immersed in their PS4 experience.