Oculus Rift has been given many titles in the two months since it released to the public. Some have called it "the future of entertainment", while others have likened it to the launch of the first iPhone.
With all due respect to those that made the aforementioned claims, I'm not buying it, and I don't think you should either. Not yet, anyway.
In its current state, the Oculus Rift is a smart, well-crafted device, yes, but I think calling it "the future of entertainment" is, at this point, a bit premature. While some experiences in the Rift have the rare ability to ensnare you for hours and leave you craving more the second you take off the visor , others elicit bouts of hours-long nausea that you can't shake.
You might think about it longingly before you go to bed after a lengthy session immersed in a virtual world and wake up excited to see what new game or 360-degree video has landed on the Oculus storefront, only to be disappointed that while one or two new videos have been added, it's more or less the same as you left it yesterday. More content is definitely on the way, but very little of it is available right this minute.
The Rift's amazing ability to transport you to new worlds can't be overstated. It's truly revolutionary when it's firing on all cylinders and games, media and virtual spaces coalesce into a new reality. But there's a barrier preventing you from interacting with your new locale. As of right now, the Oculus Touch Controller is still AWOL, and may not be available to purchase until the end of this year. The only tool you're given to interact with your surroundings is an ineffective one: an Xbox One controller.
You can make the point that the Touch Controllers will be here soon and that they, in many ways, will reshape the entire experience. But think about this: If the controllers aren't a mandatory part of the package, the user base will be split into those that opt to pay more for them and those that choose to go without. Not sure what a fragmented audience looks like? Ask Xbox One owners how they feel about the once-mandatory Kinect.
I don't want to harsh the buzz of this brave new world – there's good reason to be optimistic about the future of virtual reality – however, for right now at least, everything wonderful and good about the Rift comes with a caveat.
But before we dive too deep into specifics, let's take a moment to talk about the two most important aspects to consider before deciding to buy a Rift of your own: price and the minimum PC requirements.
If you've been following the virtual reality scene you probably know this already, but the Oculus Rift requires a wired connection to a PC in order to have enough power to drive two 1080x1200 resolution images to each lens inside the headset. It can't just be any old run-of-the-mill PC, either – you're going to need a top of the line gaming PC to enjoy everything the Rift has to offer.
The minimum specs put out by Oculus call for an Intel Core i5 4590 or equivalent processor, 8GB of RAM and an NVIDIA GTX 970 or AMD Radeon 290 video card. Most of the hardcore gaming community might already have these components on hand, but if you're a casual gamer or currently more of a PC layman, these parts will be the first of two costly investments you need to pay for upfront.
The other expenditure is the Oculus Rift itself, which comes in at $600 / £499 / AU$649. That's about $200 less than its closest competitor, the HTC Vive, and about $200 more than the headset Sony is putting out in October for the PS4.
Performance-wise I find it to be a "you get what you pay for" situation. When paired with the proper hardware, the Oculus Rift is far superior to PlayStation VR, and light years ahead of Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR, both of which only rely on the power of your cell phone to gaze into the plane of virtual reality. It's not quite as immersive or as capable as the HTC Vive, but I'll touch on that point more in a bit.
So what exactly are you buying? What does the Oculus Rift do?
How the Oculus Rift works
I've tried my best to explain virtual reality in words and, on multiple occasions, have completely and utterly failed. At best all I can do is paint a half-cocked image in hopes to inspire you to go out and find a friend or coworker with an Oculus Rift of their own who'd be kind enough to let you give it a whirl. Here goes nothing.
Imagine standing on the ledge of a 100-story building. Imagine looking down at the street below you. Imagine the tightening of your stomach and the sense of dread that you might, at any second, fall to your demise.
Now imagine taking one step forward.
You're falling and the world is whipping before you. You're petrified. But you also feel alive. The second right before you hit the ground is the worst – your brain is actually prepared for the moment by dumping adrenaline into your system as a mild painkiller.
But while all this is happening, you haven't actually moved. You've been sitting in a chair in your own home, staring into a screen. Your biometrics have changed, but, geographically speaking, you're exactly where you were 10 minutes ago.
This is what it's like to use virtual reality, to get the experience of being somewhere else in a different time, a different place, sometimes as far as an alien world, all without ever leaving your home.
This product is the fruit of a four-year research project that launched on Kickstarter, made $2 million, then was purchased by one of the most powerful tech companies in the world, Facebook. The Oculus Rift shipping these days is the first commercially available unit – the fourth evolution of the headset that started back in 2012 with Developer Kit 1.
The latest iteration of the headset is significantly better than any of the previous development kits. It's easier to setup thanks to an intuitive program that you're prompted to download when you plug it in, and it takes less technical knowhow to install games and troubleshoot when things go awry.
Like other virtual reality headsets, the Oculus RIft has the arduous task of completely immersing you in a video game by producing two images simultaneously. It does this by hooking into the back of your graphics card's HDMI port and using a camera to track your head movement. You can either sit or stand while wearing the headset, whichever you find more comfortable. But, unlike the HTC Vive, you won't be able to actually walk around at all.
Inside every box is the headset itself, the Oculus Sensor, a small Oculus Remote that can be used to control videos and change the volume on the headset, a Xbox One Wireless Controller with 2 AA batteries, an Xbox One controller adapter and extender and Lucky's Tale, a platforming game that is best compared to a 360-degree version of Super Mario Bros. If you pre-ordered the Rift, it will also come with EVE: Valkyrie Founder's Pack.
Once you've plugged the headset into the HDMI port on your GPU, the two USB cables from the headset and sensor to two USB 3.0 ports on your PC and the Xbox One controller adapter into a USB 2.0 port on your PC, you're ready to start the short and simple setup process, which only takes about 10 minutes.
What you'll find when you're done is a small library of about 40 titles that are lengthier than anything found on the HTC Vive. I played nearly all of them, and while some were better than others, there weren't any that I felt were a waste of time or money. I'll cover them in more detail on the next page but, in the broadest of strokes, the Rift is a fun gaming system, even if it feels stilted right now.