For the past couple of years I’ve been rather cautious about the prospect of Virtual Reality (VR) after testing it a LOT back in the 90s. But back then the hardware was really quite poor compared to today’s standards, and the games were a lot less complex. With Facebook picking up Oculus for a bazillion dollars there has to be something amazing about it right?
This week the IncGamers Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2 (DK2) arrived and although the DK1 was OK, this prototype release is a step up both in features and resolution. The latter probably being the most important. Last time we looked at the Rift Tim was running into regular motion sickness and experimenting with games he probably would have rather not played, mostly due to feeling woozy. This time I threw my hat in the ring, mainly because I wanted to see if the new hardware was finally getting the stage where it was actually a fantastic gaming experience, but also to try and figure out whether VR is a going to be a truly viable option for today’s gamers.
First of all: the setup of the DK2. With the new positional tracking camera there to follow your head’s movement, it means more cables and plugging stuff in. That’s a complete pet hate of mine because by desk is already covered in cables for other peripherals. Find enough space for all the wires, though, and it’s clear that the new positional tracking camera is a very welcome addition. The head has now become a body part that can actually be well tracked.
Why is this important? During the early years of consumer VR the head was tracked to an extent, but with the DK2 it tracks movement both forwards and backwards. If you lean forward or backwards that movement is tracked. This means you can lean in and even look around objects.
With improved displays and this new tracking it appears to alleviate the motion sickness factor. My previous experiences with VR have been hit and miss when it comes to sickness, but I have to say that the DK2 has solved my sickness issues. I have yet to start feeling sick, even after putting in some serious sessions this past week. Longer than is probably advised. Having said that, I have predominantly been playing games where the player is in a seated position. Alien: Isolation is the big exception, but even this managed to keep my stomach, if not my nerves, in one piece.
So, does the above mean that the Oculus Rift is almost consumer ready? No chance, is the answer to that. Despite what you may have read or seen in videos of people using it at shows, the Rift is not ready by a long shot. It’s improved, but I can’t help feeling it still has a long way to go. Not that Oculus themselves are saying it’s ready, but I think there’s a perception among players that it’s closer to a consumer version than it really is.
First of all there’s the really obvious problem of resolution, and although the DK2 is a huge step up from the DK1, it’s still not good enough. Now with a 960×1080 per-eye display, this is an improvement, but visually it’s still not sharp enough and text can be unreadable at times due to the OLED display. It’s more legible than the DK1 but not perfect by any means and it’s still not hitting the sweet spot.
These prototype Rifts have always looked clumsy and there’s still a lot of work to do on the design, especially when it comes to comfort. Trying on my old VFX-1 again this week reiterated the fact that it was actually comfortable to wear, with no pressure around the eyes. It was more like wearing a helmet. The design worked because the weight of the device was supported across the top of the whole head.
These early Rifts are anything but comfortable to wear, especially if you’ve had them on for more than about 20 minutes. With a top strap supporting the headset along the top of the head, and the two side straps to hold it on, it can feel like you head is a vice because they have to hold all the front weight of the main casing. There’s a lot of pressure applied to the face to keep it snug which becomes increasingly uncomfortable over time.
Wearers of glasses will also find it quite unpleasant. You can wear glasses with the Rift, but even with the side panels fully extended it’s a tight fit. This makes the whole device feel even more cumbersome. When the consumer version does eventually arrive I seriously hope that Oculus take those of us who wear glasses into account, because the design at the moment is not comfortable at all with a pair of specs on.
While Oculus is busy sorting out the hardware, the 0.4 Software Development Kit (SDK) is better than it’s predecessors. But it’s still hit and miss getting games to work.
Although there’s now a direct to Rift mode, most games I have tried that are not demos from the Oculus Share site require you to have the Rift run in Extended mode. This effectively makes the Rift an additional monitor. It took a good couple of hours getting the monitor/Rift setup right, because the PC now had three monitors to think about instead of the usual two. Launched programs would sometimes start on monitor two, which would then have to be changed to monitor one for the Rift. It was a right juggling act. Just when you think you have the combo right it goes horribly pear-shaped. I’m still not convinced it’s correct on my current set up, though it’s working for testing purposes at the moment.
In light of all that, I think it’s safe to say that there’s a lot of work to be done to make the Rift plug and play. Luckily, there are keen programmers chipping in to make life easier. The utility VR Game Manager was a godsend. It removed most, if not all, the problems of getting games set up and launched quickly. It really does save time and every Rift game player should be using this. I’ll talk about that a little more in my next article, which looks more directly at the games.
The question I know players want answered is whether VR constitutes the future direction of gaming. I’ve always loved the idea of VR but have been let down by the tech behind it, and that’s currently still a problem. Time-wise, it looks to be some way off from being an exciting prospect. What is great about VR titles that actually make the most of the current tech is the sense of depth and perspective that you just don’t get with a monitor. This is definitely a huge plus for the concept, and the technology.
However, there are still so many hurdles to overcome and I’m still not fully convinced that all gamers will even be able to adapt to VR. The jury is out as to what percentage of gamers using VR would be affected by motion sickness problems, but it’s a serious issue that needs to be considered. DK2 has made a valiant attempt to address the vom-factor. Developers are going to have to help out too, by looking at how they can tackle the problem when creating VR versions of their games.
We’re now 15 years on from when the first PC consumer VR headsets arrived, and progress has been very slow. I like what I am seeing with the Rift but anyone wanting to join the VR hype train should wait quite a while before jumping in.
In my next DK2 piece I’ll be looking at some of the games that are making the best of the current hardware. A select few have managed to achieve relatively impressive results.