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Oculus Rift Development Kit Review

Introduction

For the uninitiated, the Oculus Rift may seem alien sitting next to a monitor. A head mounted display, or HMD, the outside of the Rift is essentially a box with straps. Developed by Palmer Luckey, a long time moderator in the Meant to Be Seen forums, the Rift was designed to be a modern reinvention of the HMD. With a vast collection of HMD models, possibly the largest in the world, Luckey was largely unimpressed with the state of Virtual Reality - so he decided to change it.

Enter the Oculus Rift - a lightweight prototype built out of cheap parts. In its first iteration, the Rift became a perfect example of the dangers of judging by appearance. A rickety kludge of duct tape and hand-made circuitry, it was clear that whatever value it had would come from within. Demoed by industry luminary John Carmack at E3, the industry was suddenly very interested. One incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign later, the prototype is here.

With a personal history soaked in cyberpunk and futurism, I was excited from the very moment I discovered the Rift. After spending a year dwelling on the possibilities, researching the technology, and briefly considering building my own, I bit the bullet in early March 2013 and ordered my own development kit. Compelled by the dream of entering other worlds, I wonder if the industry is approaching a Rubicon; it's clear that the Oculus Rift will revolutionize HMDs, but I wonder if it will also revolutionize display technology in general.


Presentation

Clearing away all the packaging, I see the Rift's attractive carrying case. Matte black with raised lettering, and the wonderfully minimal Oculus eye logo, it looks fairly professional, limited only by its plastic construction. Inside is more exciting - the Rift itself, sunken into neatly cut foam, along with all of its cabling and accessories. The package is completed by the sickly sweet pong of freshly moulded plastic.

Oculus Rift Development Kit
It's clear that the people responsible for putting this kit together tried to think of everything. Placing the paperwork aside, I begin pouring over the contents. It's filled with adapters, cabling, two extra sets of eye cups for people with different types of vision, and nestled beneath the HMD is an Oculus branded kiwi cloth - a thoughtful touch. While it's clear that this kit is function before form, it looks nice enough.

Some pleasing design work went into bringing the package together; there's just enough space for everything and its protective foam. Most possible setup configurations have been considered, and the whole kit seems well thought out.


Hardware

The Oculus Rift looks just as I expected : very plain with the exception of its signature bevelling and logo. The power adapter is modular, and comes with four plug attachments to guarantee its functionality around the globe. The B and C lens cups are neatly stacked in their own compartment next to the plug modules, and amongst the cords is a HDMI-to-DVI adapter.

Oculus Rift Development Kit
The eye cups twist out with some force, and to free them I had to delicately push on the plastic tabs that keep the lenses in place. I was a bit nervous during the process because one bad slip could scratch the lenses. The cups are smooth cast plastic which makes them too slippery for a good grip, so some knurling or a rougher texture would have been helpful. Removing the cups also exposes the screen, so make sure that you're in a clean environment - I had to remove them a second time to clear little crumbs of foam that fell in from the strap.

The control box is lightweight and unobtrusive. It's cast in the same plastic, and has the same bevelled pattern as the "face" of the rift. Unfortunately, it's permanently attached to the Rift. It would require a custom plug to disconnect it from the mainboard, so I understand why they did this. It has basic display controls on it: two buttons for contrast, two for brightness, and of course a single on/off switch. The buttons have a raised line on them which is helpful when trying to adjust setting while wearing the Rift.

The unit weighs a little more in my hand than I expected, having heard that it was as light as ski-goggles (it's not). Foam padding and adjustable straps trail off of it: functional but not attractive. The plastic is light and feels a bit...inexpensive... but honestly: this is an early development kit and this was to be expected. In every way, the Rift appears as a development model - the result of fast prototyping intended to get it into the hands of developers as fast as possible.

Oculus Rift Development Kit
The 7 inch LCD screen the Rift currently uses is actually a re-purposed smart-phone screen. With a total resolution of 1280x800, each eye is left with a resolution of only 640x800, creating the unique aspect ratio of 4:5. In addition to being a lower resolution, the nature of having the screen magnified by the lenses makes the pixel spacing noticeable AKA "the screen door effect".

Between the low resolution, the odd aspect, and the pixel grid, the display is not inherently pleasant to look at. The one improvement offered by the new screen; a faster switching time on pixels, does not do enough to counter the unpleasant pixel smear created by rapid movement. It's important to note that aside from weight, the current dev kit is a total improvement over the original demo kit. The head tracking, taken on its own, is excellent; it's snappy and precise, and is simply waiting for the screen to catch up with it.

An HD version is already making the rounds at trade shows and was debuted at this year's E3. With a 1080p screen, people who have had a hands on agree that the screen door effect is even further reduced. This is just a start though, the and the resolution specs of the consumer version remain to be seen.


Software

After plugging everything in, I ran into a couple problems. The first issue was minor: a dead neon green pixel. The bigger issue was head tracking. Thankfully, after four hours of digging around, the solution was to disable the macro software that came with my AZiO mouse, a solution Logitech users should also take note of.

Oculus Rift Screencap

Now I can get started! I'm still playing around with what's out there, but for the purposes of this review, I focused on the included Oculus demos, and Valve's Half Life 2 and Team Fortress 2. The demos were quick, but I think they provided a fair taste of the effect and let me gauge my aptitude for VR. I was happy to see that I didn't need much practice to get my "VR legs".

Tiny Room: A straightforward demo that provides a small sampling of clipping-free geometry: two chairs, two tables, some posts and a shelf. This simple and visually minimal environment is a perfect place to focus on the Rift's actual capacity for stereoscopy. The plain geometry creates simple and identifiable perspective, which it turns out is perfectly suited to the low resolution of the developer model.

Tuscany: My visual cortex says I can touch this plant, but my cerebral cortex says it's not real.
Tuscany: The Tuscany demo is a fantastic example of what an HMD can achieve. The stereoscopic effect is pronounced, and objects visibly pop and have dimensionality. The environment itself is quick and dirty, with muddy textures in the distance and free 3D props, but all of this is lost within the Rift. This is partly due to the Rift's low resolution, but also because of a palpable sense of immersion created by the head tracking.

I found Tuscany to be an interesting demo of the Rift's potential; partly because it gets its interpupillary distance (IPD) setting from an in-house configuration tool packaged with the developer kit. So far, I think Tuscany is the least visually strenuous experience I've had on the Rift. My eyes naturally relax while retaining focus, and this is an experience I hope to have in games designed to support the Rift from the ground up. It also has the most spatial depth from the software I chose to test.

Team Fortress 2: I have to commend Valve for their post-release VR game enhancements. Their configuration tool is both easy to use and functional, and to add free Oculus support to a free game so quickly is a measure all developers (and publishers!) should be held to by today's customer.

With a console command, I entered Valve's configuration utility. This utility has you move the periphery of each screen, having you adjust all four sides twice. Along with configuration, there are many options for look and aim control. I settled on head and mouse look, with a small aiming keyhole.

By turning my mouse DPI down, I was able to combine head movements and mouse adjustments to almost replicate the freedom of motion I typically enjoy with the game. It's a natural feeling: you look with your head, and the mouse controls your arm until it reaches the keyhole periphery, where it then controls the rotation of your body. This is a control schema I'll be looking to use in first person shooters in the future. Decoupling the gun feels natural, and if the HUD could be ray traced out into the game world it would be perfect.

Overall, TF2's 3D depth effects aren't as great as I hoped for. When I sit still and gawk at an interesting piece of geometry, it's tangible. While moving and focusing on play, it's too easy to ignore the stereoscopy - perhaps even preferable. In this case, the fast pace of a competitive FPS didn't lend well to an immersive experience, and I found it easier to play with full mouse look while using the head tracking to refine my aim.

I think there is room for exploration here. With some time acclimating to an HMD as another control input, I predict that an increase in accuracy and situational awareness will develop, which would make a lighter high-res HMD a competitive advantage in action gaming.

HalfLife 2: Is the Oculus Rift a future home for masochists?
Half Life 2: To get the game working, all I had to do was copy the Oculus Rift configuration settings created in TF2 and paste them into the HL2 config file. It was with HalfLife 2 that the Rift's low resolution became a real problem.

The biggest issue is the model geometry loses its detail and becomes a pixelated soup as you look deep into the distance. Trying to make out enemies more than five meters away is like trying to aim while looking at an old TV with a magnifying glass because characters become nothing more than moving blobs. I expect this problem will be resolved in the consumer model because the resolution will be much higher than what we have today. For me, it's a problem I can ignore for now, but this could be a major issue for others using the Oculus Rift development kit.

HalfLife 2: Nine years later, and the world feels fuller than ever.
Setting aside the limitations of draw detail, the experiences I've had playing HalfLife2 on the Rift have been excellent. The sense of your character's height relative to the world is fantastic. Normally when I play an FPS, I tend to map my character's eyes to the top of the screen which makes the game world feel too small. In contrast, the Rift and its head tracking creates a proper sense of my place in the environment. The result is swinging that crowbar has never felt so engaging, and I can watch my character's arm move independently. On a side note, as a fan of horror, I look forward to Ravenholm.

HalfLife 2 had occasional problems with their head tracking support. For example, during the speed boat gunning section, your gun can get stuck positioned sideways and is impossible to aim with.

Separate from the VR gaming experiences, I'm most excited about Valve's demonstrated commitment to this technology, and I'm looking forward to what they come up with in the not too distant future.


Conclusion

While the Oculus Rift development kit is light, I find it presses on my face in a way I can't ignore. With the software I tested, I saw a distinct black box around all the images. Definitely better than the other stuff I've tried, but this does take a toll on the immersion.

There is a certain "flatness" that undermines the effect I imagined, and it's not as 3D as I was hoping for. It's just 3D enough to be engaging. It could be my settings, it could be the game designer's choice...or it could be me - maybe my expectations are too high. Time will tell.

HalfLife 2: Now we can hate him on the Y axis as well.
To be fair to Oculus, with any early developer product there is a degree of flexibility and a certain roughness that results from prioritizing delivery over refinement. This was never intended as a consumer product with lots of ergonomic features. For these reasons, I think that I allowed my expectations to exceed my reason. A lot of people have been dreaming about Virtual Reality right along with me, and we must understand that the Oculus Rift's development kit is very much a first step towards a bright future.

My first impression of the Oculus Rift shows it to be a deep well of potential; an idea manifested in its infancy, but one that teeters on the edge of viability. This is a fine edge to balance on, and everything I know about Palmer Luckey and the Oculus team tells me they will hit the mark with their full release product. This device is intriguing to say the least in that despite its flaws, the potential is obvious.

Two decades of sci-fi have shaped an image of what VR should be in my mind, and for better or worse the Rubric that I'm judging my experience by. I want seamless visual integration, a gesture-based interface, and online communities; virtual chat rooms much like those outlined in Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash.

While there is no formal integration, the DIY community along with some technological innovations has made all three of these standards palpably real: the Rift delivers great peripheral vision; the Razer Hydra, Leap Motion Controller, and even the Microsoft Kinect are rapidly bringing fluid gesture control closer; Minecrift and Metacraft, while no Black Sun, promise to be an engaging experience I look forward to testing.

Looking into the Rift's future, there are some distinct improvements that the consumer model will require. Frequently addressed is the display resolution, and yes, this is massively important. However, there's more room for improvement, and I believe this lies in the direction of the lenses. Currently, you can have the lenses practically touching your eye, or you can have a distinct black edge around what you're seeing. Larger, rectangular lenses set in angles would surely be a nightmare to design, but with the right lens shape, I'm confident that the "binocular" effect could be removed.

The Rift would also benefit from a custom made screen with a greater horizontal resolution, and while it's still far in the future, flexible LCD is on its way. This would allow for a smooth ergonomic casing that takes up less room with thinner and wider lenses.

I think my standards for VR were once too high, but as I see this technology unfold, it's clear to me that they are not only feasible, they are also inevitable. I have found a door into Virtual Reality...it's just under construction.