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A bespectacled look at the Oculus Rift

Jordan Mallory

For the most part, being near- or farsighted today isn't that big of a deal. The only cultural zeitgeist folks like me have missed out on recently has been in the resurgence of glasses-required 3D technology in consumer media. And let's be honest, it isn't a tremendous loss.

In fact, the Oculus Rift is the only thing on the horizon that is as potentially game-changing as it is unfriendly to glasses. That thing straps directly onto your whole face, there's no way a pair of fashionable specs could fit under there.

Well, as it turns out, the Oculus Rift really was accommodating to my Converse frames and their too-old lenses, so much so that for the first time ever I'm legitimately excited about the once-lofty possibility of a virtual reality future.

The development kit I tested was the same model unit that recently shipped out to those that backed the company's Kickstarter, and subsequently nothing about the device's build quality screamed "early model" or "prototype." There are some internal differences, however, between this version and what Oculus plans to eventually ship to consumers.

Oculus wants to make the Rift even lighter than it is already, which is impressive considering how featherweight the thing is – the head strap is more noticeable than the minimal amount of weight it currently supports. The company also wants to increase the resolution of the device's dual screens, which currently sit at a combined 1280 x 800, or 640 x 800 per eyeball.

The most important upgrade to the development kit, a least for my purposes, was the addition of interchangeable glass cups that act to refocus the displays' depth of field for people with impaired vision. This was a placeholder solution and is not how the final device will function, Rift inventor Palmer Luckey told me.

"Different eye cups are not the plan for the consumer version," Luckey said. "[The] consumer version will use lenses with a much narrower depth of field, so that you can just use a minimal physical adjustment via a knob or a dial or something to tune in the focus."

A bespectacled look at the Oculus Rift
The soft foam surrounding the Rift's eyeball port was more "sleep mask" than "Virtual Boy," and it gently moulded around the arms of my glasses, rather than pushing them into my temple. I have a big, goofy head, so folks with regular-sized noggins will likely have an even better experience than I did. Even so, thoughts about how comfortable the device was quickly faded as the blank screens flickered to life and a custom build of Hawken came into view.

Now, this is when my enthusiasm for the device was momentarily quelled: Hawken, refracted once through the Rift's focal cups and once again through my lenses, was less than crystal clear. It wasn't out of focus, per se, but it wasn't nearly as crisp as one would expect, considering that the displays were mere inches away from my optic nerves.

Additionally, my glasses prevented the Rift from fitting perfectly snug against the front of my face, creating a binocular-esque circular black border around the edge of the display that glassesless folk have told me they did not experience. This made adjusting the Rift until its displays were at the correct viewing angle more difficult than it seemed like it should have been, or at least more difficult than I would have preferred.

Finagling eventually triumphed over contemporary fashion, however, and I soon found myself seated in the cockpit of a giant mech. Though the mech itself was controlled by a USB Xbox 360 controller, I was free to look around the interior at my leisure – the entire cabin fully rendered from stem to stern. It was, for lack of a better word, surreal.

A bespectacled look at the Oculus Rift
Looking down, I could see dials, switches and gauges adorning intricate instrumentation panels. To my left and right were the mech's arm-mounted weapons, and behind me was the welded, reinforced hull of the craft. My eyes were telling my brain that it had left the demo station and been taken to a dystopian battlefield, and the vast majority of my brain believed it. I had completely forgotten about how slightly smudged things had appeared moments before. The only thing that broke the illusion was my inability to reach out and touch something inside of that marvelous machine.

After a few minutes, free looking during combat felt like second nature. Once my mind stopped associating field of view with target acquisition, as is typically the language of an FPS, the game transformed into an immersive experience like no other. Rockets would zip past the mech from the side, and instinctively my neck would crane to look out the window and find where the shot had come from. Tilting the cockpit of the mech down with the controller, my body leaned as far forward in its seat as it could, so that I could peer over the roof of a building and find my prey. The resulting vertigo was as affecting as any I've ever experienced in the real world.

When a film is engrossing enough, your mind forgets that you're in a movie theater or living room and instead wraps itself around the entirety of the audio-visual experience. The same thing is true with the Rift: The screen smudge and glasses frame-induced tunnel vision just disappeared after a while, as far as my brain's interpretation was concerned.

A bespectacled look at the Oculus Rift
It wasn't until I put the device back on a second time – equipped with a Thrustmaster Ferrari 458 Italia-replica steering wheel – that I again noticed the black border and had to wrestle with the display angle. Still, those minor annoyances quickly faded as the demo started and I found myself behind the wheel of a blocky, red polygonal race car that wouldn't have been completely out of place in Daytona USA. Apparently, an Oculus employee had whipped this demo up in Unity a couple weeks prior to my test, and I was advised to expect less-than realistic physics.

In some ways, the rudimentary racing prototype felt even more natural than Hawken had, thanks mostly to the fact that I've spent more real-world hours behind the wheel of a car than the controls of a mech. Despite the janky physics, it was a thrill to turn my head and look out the side window of the car as it drifted through a banked corner and into an echoing tunnel. The first crash induced a legitimate wince, and while backing away from the wall I turned to look behind myself and instinctively tried to put my arm over the passenger seat.

But then, halfway through the second lap, I encountered something that hasn't been a problem since I was a small boy: I got car sick. This was no slow, creeping nausea either – this was a sudden, full-force twist of the gut that was barely stomached until the end of the lap. I'd heard tales of Rift sickness from colleagues, but having survived Hawken's action-packed firefights I'd figured I was in the clear; not so. The sickness left as quickly as it came once the Rift was removed, but let's just say the race ended with more than one photo finish.

If I were able to wear contacts, or was comfortable with the idea of having my eyeballs cut open and lasers shot into them while I was awake, the small issues I encountered with the Oculus Rift may not have existed at all. Even so, none of the problems I did face were major enough to detract from the overall experience. Despite the fact that I almost tossed my lunch over what had to have been several thousand dollars worth of proprietary hardware, the rest of the day was filled with one recurring thought: "What if that had been Forza Horizon?"

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