Update: At last, the first Oculus Rifts are showing up on consumers' doorsteps. While Oculus hit its target date of March 28 for the headset's release, only Rifts that were pre-ordered via Kickstarter are beginning to arrive today. Other pre-orders will start shipping mid-week and arrive soon after.
When I think of virtual reality, I think of immersive experiences that transport me to places, real or make-believe, I would otherwise never see. VR is the stuff of sci-fi: mesmerizing, otherworldly, and maybe just a little unsettling. It's going from Point A to who knows where or when, without leaving wherever your mortal shell is in the here and now.
Oculus Rift has achieved this effect, and it's done so in what feels like the blink of an eye. I can say from my own experience of first trying Rift at GDC 2014 all the way to using the final version just two weeks ago, it's come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. Now, it's coming to consumers.
Rift's transformation begins in the hardware itself. Compared to that first early prototype and later dev kits, the consumer Rift feels like it actually belongs on your face. It's lightweight, comfortable and refined.
This extends to the software. Rift's launch games are precisely, often beautifully rendered. The latency and pixelation issues of earlier Rifts are a distant memory. The games are smooth and stable, and each is delightful in its own way. Whereas at that GDC two years ago the experiences were short, laggy, yet still promising demos, Rift's 30 launch titles are, for the most part, fully realized games.
Oculus has placed a premium on great content for Rift, developed both internally and externally, as Oculus founder Palmer Luckey explained to me.
There's no argument the games are gorgeous … if you're using Oculus Rift on an optimized PC. Therein lies the rub: if you're not, how do games like ADR1FT, an intense launch title set in space, run? I asked Oculus just that question, but haven't heard back yet. I can imagine, however, that it's not going to be a good time for anyone.
If your PC is up to spec - which will cost at least $1,000 (about £707, AU$1,331) if you buy one bundled with the $599/£499/AU$649 headset - then Oculus Rift opens up worlds that are unlike anything you've ever seen or experienced. The best part? It's all only going to get better.
What it's like to wear Oculus Rift
The Oculus Rift headset is an elegant, sleek and, dare I say, stylish black brick you stick on your face. You may not look great wearing it, but the actual hardware can't be faulted for aesthetics.
It's a far cry from the rough, borderline shoddy construction of the very first prototype we tried only a few years ago.
Oculus Rift consumer edition isn't weighty: it almost has a hollow feel, though once you have it on, it definitely feels like you're wearing something more substantial than a baseball cap over your head and eyes.
The visor portion doesn't dig in thanks to dense foam and, when it's tightened just right, it fits snuggly. Foam cushions the back portion of the strap, so your head is cradled in the Rift. The headset is well balanced: my neck didn't get fatigued even after several 30 minute-plus gaming sessions.
It's a little tricky, however, to get it to fit just right. When it's too loose, gaps allow light to come through from underneath the faceplate. Personally, it was kind of a relief to have some connection to the outside world when I looked down and could see a sliver of my hands holding the Xbox One controller, though some may find it distracting.
Rift also needs to be positioned properly on your face, otherwise the focus in the VR experience is off. This will happen if the headset is hanging a little loose or isn't centered, creating a blurred effect. Too tight, and while the headset is secure and the focus generally spot on, it tends to be uncomfortable. When this happened, it never got to the point where I needed to take the headset off to escape the discomfort, but it ached slightly, like I was wearing a hat a few sizes too small.
The headphones are as inconspicuous as they come. They're positioned flush on the headset, and you can easily flip them over to hear the outside world. When they are turned toward your ear canal, they pump in crisp audio that adds to the immersion.
With the headphones turned in, it almost feels like you're wearing a lightweight helmet rather than a visor, and it helps draw you even further into the virtual world before your eyes.
The sound offered by the built-in headphones gave me a sense of presence in the Rift's VR experiences, and I think they'd suite most average users. However, while it's convenient that the headphones are included, you can also remove the audio arms to use your own set if you prefer a more premium sound.
One issue with the audio is that it can be so enveloping, especially if the volume is turned up, that you're cut off from the world around you. I had to strain to hear what people who were sitting no more than two feet away from me were saying if the volume was on the higher end. Unlike Microsoft HoloLens, which lets you not only see everything that's in your environment but also hear fairly well, you don't always have that ability with Oculus Rift.
It could become troublesome if someone comes into a room and tries to talk to you, but you can't see or hear them. Maybe that's what you want - some uninterrupted alone time - but it might be harder for some to justify the isolation.
I'll dive into the Oculus Touch controllers a little later in this review, but the Xbox One controller that comes with every Rift feels like a bit of an add-on. "Here, we didn't make this, but you need it to play!" Still, there weren't any hardware issues. It's a perfectly capable controller, so no complaints there.
The final standout piece of the hardware is the PC tether, the headset's lifeline to the engine that runs all of its experiences. It comes out the rear of the headset and curves over your back or shoulder, and it's a light touch that you don't really feel unless your arm gets hooked under it, which happened to me. You'll also definitely notice it if you're sitting on it, start to tilt your head forward and suddenly find you can't move it any further, like reaching the end of a rope.
I played a Rift game standing, and while I could sense the tether's presence, it didn't get in the way (and I didn't fall over it - yay!). One of this particular game's producers told me that the team designed it for a PC and accounted for the tether, so it in a way influenced the game, or at least how the devs thought about helping players avoid it.