Hands on: Oculus Rift review

With pre-orders open, VR is finally happening

What is a hands on review?
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Oculus revealed a consumer release date for Q1 in 2016 but kept its lips zipped on specs and official pricing for the Rift during its big pre-E3 event.

The company still doesn't seem ready to release the info just yet but it was sure ready to show off the headset.

After using Oculus Rift Crescent Bay, I made a series of mental notes to check off when I tried the consumer Rift: Will it actually be lighter? Will my glasses fit comfortably? Will the latency improve? After using the new HMD at E3 2015, I can enthusiastically say yes to all of it, and more.

Light as a feather

As the demo-giver handed me the Rift, I could barely contain my excitement because it was so incredibly light. Crescent Bay was far too heavy and wouldn't be comfortable wearing it for hours while turning your head around to look at stuff.

Oculus Rift

With weight seemingly fixed - I say seemingly because I still have yet to use the new headset for an extended amount of time - I moved on to the facial plate.

Previously, it would always be a struggle to fit the Rift on my face because of my glasses. The latest Rift was much less of a struggle and was very easily adjusted to accommodate the large frames.

The demo-giver fine-tuned the velcro straps for me on the sides though doing it on my own would have been a fairly simple process. The material wrapped around the Oculus Rift was also soft and sleek looking, which is a far cry from the chunky plastic. The head straps on the back look slightly different as well, and fit snugly.

Oculus Rift

As previously seen on Crescent Bay, the new headset has a pair of headphones attached to the sides that slip over your ears. However, Oculus says they'll be removable so you have the option to use your own headphones.

The built-in audio itself doesn't sound too shabby and features 360 degree spatial audio experience.

As with the Oculus Rift's previous iterations, a constellation tracking system will determine your position in space while you're wearing the headset.

Oculus Rift

There's also a new sensor for desktops that users can simply plug into the back of their computers. This sensor should start working in tandem with the constellation tracking right from the get go.

The sensor will be able to recognize the head motions of users whether they're in a either a seated and standing experiences as well.

Starter pack of games

There were so many more VR games to choose from at this E3 compared to previous years but I was only allowed to pick two.

Football, baseball, basketball and hockey simulator are the options you get from VR Sports Challenge but the demo on hand was hockey. I was immediately thrown into the game as a goalie after a quick screen showing button commands on the Xbox One controller.

A grizzled hockey player gave me a pep talk and was far more detailed looking than I expected. As he skated away, there was no lag at all. The amazing lack of lag applied to the rest of the hockey team quickly gliding around the rink.

The gameplay consisted of turning my head to keep track of the hockey puck. The latency remained stellar as I swiveled around to make sure the opposing team wouldn't score.

The game required a press of the left or right bumper on the controller, timed to block the shot. Once your team gets closer to the other side of the rink, you take control of the player with the puck automatically. The game slows down to let you turn your head to find an open spot to score a point.

Oculus Rift

VR Sports was a simple game with mechanics that were easy to grasp, though at times it felt like I was just hanging out in the crease watching the action happen.

However it still felt like an immersive virtual reality especially when the puck came straight at my face. I had the urge to move back and protect my face while yelling - until I remembered it was fake. Because of these intense moments, I'd say Sanzaru Games did a great job and I'm excited to see what the other sports games are like.

I also decided to try out EVE: Valkyrie even though I've played it before. It was never a good experience because the Oculus was heavy and pressed so close to eyeballs, that I always developed a headache afterwards.

It was a bit different with the new Oculus Rift strapped on. This time, I was actually able to see everything clearly and it felt like I was in space shooting fools down while spinning and zooming around.

I still felt woozy afterwards, but it wasn't that bad because my glasses didn't fog up randomly and the lenses were at a comfortable distance from my face.

The magic touch

Oculus Touch is delightful. From my earlier experiences with Rift, to Crescent Bay, I had always wanted Project Morpheus-level interaction and now, finally, Oculus Touch has fulfilled the final requirement for total immersion.

Oculus Touch

Now, that doesn't mean Touch is perfect, but it's far more impressive than I expected. During the pre-E3 conference, Oculus VP Nate Mitchell told me it won't be ready to ship with the headset in Q1 but it should be out soon after - and I believe it.

I honestly thought the peripheral demo would only show me I could move things around or swat at blocks - rudimentary hand tracking at best. I was completely wrong.

Oculus Touch

Apparently, the Oculus team has been working hard on developing the Half-Moon prototypes to do much more. In the aptly named Toy Box demo, I was not only able to pick up objects, I could shoot guns, slingshots, punch objects, pull heads off robots, and light sparklers on fire with a lighter.

It doesn't sound like much but the Touch controllers barely lost tracking and consistently obeyed each grabby command. I did freeze and lose tracking three times, but it quickly corrected itself and resumed being a weird disembodied hand. The physics were also wonky at times. I placed a ping pong paddle down and it ended up pushing everything else off the table once. However, using one finger in the zero gravity mode to push a block in space made it gently float away. Again, these are all things that are fixable and should change exponentially by next year.

Oculus Touch

Each controller was lightweight and required a wrist lanyard similar to a Wiimote. It was a little confusing at first acclimating to the different buttons and triggers but after a few minutes, it became clear where each finger needed to go to pick something up. Essentially, if you're a good multitasker, it shouldn't be a problem to figure out. Gamers are probably used to this anyway.

The Touch controllers are cable-free and contain natural-feeling haptic feedback. An analog stick, two buttons and an analog trigger - which is capacitative to touch - round out the two controllers.

Each time I wanted to grab an object, the haptics would kick in to let me know it was OK to press the trigger to pick up the object. The quick vibration wasn't always necessary but was a nice indication that the controller "made contact" with something.

VR isn't as solitary as you think

The person leading me through the demo was in another room while a disembodied head a set of disembodied hands were in the VR world with me. Every time he talked, the mouth area of the head would glow, and I'm assuming that's what I looked like too. This probably won't be the final look of the avatars, but I was still impressed by the quality and capabilities.

Oculus Touch

For most of my experience, the demo-giver was virtually in front of me passing me items or instructing me on what to pick up. One portion however, moved him "next" to me - the avatar visually shifted to my right while with the 360 degree audio emitted primarily from my right side, giving the sense that he was literally standing next to me at a shooting gallery.

It was completely surreal and threw me off because I wasn't expected that level of immersion and interaction with another person in a VR world.

Early verdict

The consumer Oculus Rift is in short, well worth the wait. I don't think the masses will take to it right away considering it's going to be expensive all around and many people don't have PC rigs set up. Then there's the waves of people who will likely face waves of nausea despite the near perfect latency. This is the most obvious problem but seems like a hurdle the team is getting closer to fixing.

Games are also increasingly being developed directly for VR meaning there will be plenty of content trickling out. Whether they'll be any good is another area that will continually be improved through trial and error.

The Oculus Touch controllers are the icing on the VR cake. I've used various peripherals before, but the software and hardware always felt a bit off, or simply weren't ready. The Touch is something I can see truly immersing you in the VR world, and it's only a prototype. I'm genuinely excited to see how much better the next iteration will be.

The company has come a long, long way from the days of the barf-inducing DK1 so it has a lot to be proud of with the impending release of the consumer Rift build. But as founder Palmer Luckey stated during the Oculus conference, "this is only the beginning" and I can't wait to see what happens next.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.