The Oculus Rift could make the ream of virtual reality real — and inexpensive. Credit: Oculus VRA person pulls a clunky helmet over his head, and is now inside a virtual world that seems completely lifelike. The user can run around and fight and race and fly, doing things that couldn't be done (at least not easily) in the real world.
There have been numerous films, TV shows and books that have imagined technology that can transport a person inside an immersive fiction. The real-life virtual reality rigs that started to appear in the late '80s, in the military, weren't very convincing, and when the technology began to improve, the gear necessary would cost in the tens, if not the hundreds, of thousands. It seemed virtual reality would not be for home use and would remain a tool of military simulation and corporate design. But mobile computing has gotten more powerful and cheaper. And now a startup called Oculus VR is creating personal virtual reality goggles for everyone to use, called the Oculus Rift.
What is the Oculus Rift?
The Oculus Rift is a set of virtual reality goggles that will work with your computer or mobile device. The Oculus Rift was invented by a VR enthusiast named Palmer Luckey. After showing a prototype at the E3 gaming convention in 2012 that garnered interest from gaming media, he founded the company with Brendan Iribe, who became CEO. They launched a Kickstarter project in August 2012 to sell prototype developer versions of the Oculus Rift so game studios could start making games, raising $2.4 million. In the months since, Oculus VR has raised additional money and shipped tens of thousands of developer versions of the Rift, while continuing to perfect a consumer model.
How does the Oculus Rift work?
Picture a set of ski goggles where a 7-inch cellphone screen replaces the window. That cellphone 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, creating a stereoscopic 3D image. The goggles have sensors embedded into them that monitor how you turn or tilt your head, and adjusts the image accordingly. The result is the sensation that you are looking around a 3D world.
What about Augmented Reality?
Augmented Reality 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 are 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?
At CES 2014, Oculus VR showed off its latest Oculus Rift prototype, called Crystal Cove. The Crystal Cove possessed a handful of new features, including a 1080p OLED display. The Oculus Rift can now track head movement across six axes instead of its previous three, which allows the device to track head movement and follow a user's eyes without drifting. The device now operates with a lag time of only 30 milliseconds rather than earlier prototypes' 50-60 milliseconds. 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 have not 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 this "screen-door effect" of the Oculus Rift?
Because the screen is so close to your eyes, you can see the space between the individual pixels, resulting in the appearance of looking at the world through a grid or the metal mesh of a screen door. This effect should be minimized or negated with the improved screen that Oculus VR plans for the consumer version.
An inside view of the Oculus Rift. Credit: Oculus VR.What are the tech specs of the Oculus Rift?
The developer version features a 7-inch, 1280 x 800 screen that provides an 110-degree field of view. It comes with three different lens cups, which are used to adjust the distance from a person's eyes to the screen, and thus the focal point of the 3D image. This is to help accommodate those who wear eyeglasses and to help users adjust the image to the point where they are comfortable. You may have to try each of the lens cups to find the one that works best for you. There is also a large screw on each side of the goggles to adjust the distance from screen to face.
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The Crystal Cove prototype from CES is a separate device, and is likely closer to what the finalized consumer model will be. The prototype boasts a full 1080p OLED screen, as well 30-millisecond refresh rates. Crystal Cove also sports three additional motion-tracking axes, allowing users to tilt their heads, crouch and jump, and see the virtual world react to their positioning.
Where can I buy an Oculus Rift?
You can order the Oculus Rift development kit from Oculus VR from its Web store. Originally, it took months for the company to send units out due to the limited supply and the demand from developers and early adopters. The company has now gotten production to the point where it is shipping Rifts in only a few days.
How much does the Oculus Rift cost?
The developer version costs $300. Oculus VR has stated that a consumer version will be "affordable," but has not yet listed a price. Analysts estimate that the device 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 get pushed back. 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's 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 the lag from when users move their head to when the screen updates in reaction to that head movement. 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 will contribute to a better image with a more natural feel that reduces the motion sickness that some experience, Oculus VR says. There may be other improvements that the company hasn't announced yet.
What about a new developer version?
The company has said a new developer version that is similar to the consumer version will be released a month or two before the consumer version.
Is Oculus Rift compatible with my game console?
The developer version of Oculus Rift is not compatible with game consoles, only with computers (Windows, Mac and Linux) and with 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, so that may change.
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. And 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 MMO "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 Rift itself requires a computer running Windows Vista, 7 or 8; Mac OSX 10.6 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 a USB port with which to connect the Rift's control box. Its graphics card must be compatible with Direct3D 10 or OpenGL 3. 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 working 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 6-foot cable. Your computer should automatically detect the Rift and install its drivers, but then you should 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 upon 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. 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 lives up to your definition of virtual reality is up to you. But the concept of a 3D unit with head tracking that is inexpensive makes it seem like viable virtual reality has finally arrived, at least for computer gamers.