On a sunny Southern California afternoon, Oculus VR's founder, Palmer Luckey, its VP of Product, Nate Mitchell, its press agent, a film crew, photographers and a pair of Engadget's editors occupy a conference room in the company's Irvine headquarters. While it's the first time that most of the group has met in person, they're all here with a common interest. This assembly is gathered to take a look at what is said to be the final development hardware design of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Outside of this intrigued mash-up of press and corporate executives, Oculus' heads-up headset has managed to generate a lot of buzz in a reasonably short amount of time. The original concept was constructed from leftover parts in the garage of a tinkerer who was trying to create an affordable VR experience. Looking to further the Rift's development, the newborn firm took to crowdfunding and smashed its 30-day Kickstarter goal of $250,000 by raising a colossal $2,437,429 this past August.
During its early fundraising days we managed to go hands-on with a crude prototype of the equipment which left us yearning to get our hands on a final development model. A few short months later at CES, the company teased a larger, redesigned 7-inch development model, but only allowed us to try out an updated test unit that featured a 5.6-inch, 1,280 x 800 display wrapped in several layers of black gaffer tape. Fast-forward to today and here I am waiting to test-drive that elusive headset that got away from us back in Las Vegas. With all of the buzz surrounding the company's recent VR efforts, it's time for Oculus to put up or shut up.
Oculus Rift Development Kit hands-on
Presenting us with a bland, brown cardboard box, Luckey cut through a thin layer of tape and opened the package's lid. This unearthed a plastic, but rugged black briefcase, which gave us a look at what's in store for the project's backers. Luckey unbuckled the case's hinges which revealed a foam protective packaging loaded with the updated headset, a control box, interchangeable lenses, video cables and a set of international power adapters. After this ceremonial process came to an end, the contents of the chest were placed in my care for further observation. I immediately noticed this new version of the Rift carries a little extra weight (about 90 grams) and has gone through some palpable changes. For starters, this updated dev unit sports a larger 7-inch display, which Oculus used in place of its previous 5.6-inch model due to a manufacturing shortage. The company told us that it will return to a smaller screen size when it releases a final consumer product.
The onion-esque layers of gaffer tape that covered its predecessors have been upgraded to a dull, black, sturdy plastic that bears a restyled company logo across its rear panel. It may not be the polished, consumer-geared render that was featured in Oculus' Kickstarter video, but it's definitely a far cry from the handmade contraption that's been hitting the trade show circuit for nearly a year.
Before putting on the headset's new three-strap harness, I took some time to get acquainted with its sets of exchangeable vision-correcting eyecups that lock into a set of brackets within the Rift's housing. Two of the three pairs of lenses are used to offset obstacles for users who are nearsighted by allowing them to change the headgear's focal distance, instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach. Oculus advised that some people may still need to wear their glasses or contacts in order to get the best experience when using the Rift. If this turns out to be the case, the development kit also features a knob-based adjustable assembly that allows you to re-position the system's optics closer to your eyes for comfort and improved viewing.
After a little fine-tuning, I finally placed the headset's viewfinder over my eyes and tried out the SDK's pre-loaded demo, "Tuscany." The Rift's comfortable fit was reminiscent of a well-made paintball mask, something that you can easily wear for a long period of time. A virtual Italian villa faded into view as my senses went into shock. It was startling, as if I had been plucked out of the California office and dropped into another world. Convincing as the illusion was, it wasn't perfect -- the digital estate's buildings were blurry and out of focus. Mitchell explained that this was a fault of the revision's new 7-inch panel -- it uses the same resolution as older prototypes. Mitchell directed me to look from left to right, helping me get my bearings. Someone then placed a gamepad in my hands and told me to take my first steps.
Pressing upward on the gamepad's left analog stick, I was immediately hurled forward in an unnatural fashion which brought on a sudden feeling of wooziness. My head felt foggy and my stomach started churning, but after a few short minutes my nausea slowly subsided. Continuing to explore Tuscany's scenery, I tried to maneuver up a flight of stairs by using the control system's right thumbstick. This didn't work too well as I found myself bumping into a wall and getting stuck. I was then told to rotate my head in the direction that I was trying to go in order to pull off turns and navigate myself past obstacles obstructing my path. It took a little while to find my sea legs, but gradually the process started to feel more natural and eventually I was able to walk through a room without bumping into things like a klutz.
Now with my equilibrium fully restored I took a casual stroll. Making my way outside, the game's awkward silence started to sink in and the reality that I was actually in a room full of people began to slip away. Never before has a gameplay experience had such an effect on my psyche. But before I could come to grips with these unsettling feelings, the demo session came to an end, my headset was taken off and I was back in the conference room almost as if I had never left it.
The updated dev kit's new appearance doesn't depart from Luckey's original idea of bringing an affordable VR experience to the masses. In fact, it builds on it. Hardware lives and dies on software support and by overhauling equipment, Oculus is showing developers that it means business. It's these individuals that will dictate the platform's future, providing not only feedback to improve the company's development model, but information that can be used to eventually build a consumer product. Recently at Expand, Nate Mitchell mentioned plans for an improved screen resolution and improved motion tracking. It's additions like these that will ensure that the Rift is ready for mass consumption.
Sean Buckley contributed to this report.
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