Update: Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2 is on its way to game makers and it's being used for by movie studios. We revised our hands-on review and added facts about its Galaxy Note 3 screen and Mac support.
Hands on impressions by Matt Swider and Alex Roth
Codenamed Crystal Cove, the updated Oculus Rift DK2 costs $350 (about £207, AU$373). That's $50 (about £30, AU$53) more than the first-generation developer kit.
However, the improved specs make it well worth the price bump if you're a developer with a passion for cutting-edge technology and the patience for beta hardware.
The face-worn display outfits developers with an HD screen that's 1080p or 960 x 1080 per eye. It finally meets our next-generation gaming needs.
Believe it or not, the Oculus Rift DK2 display actually uses the 5.7-inch Super AMOLED panel from the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. Behind its rubber casing is same exact front panel, "Samsung" logo and all.
This makes sense. Oculus was rumored to be working with Samsung on the South Korean electronics giant's own virtual reality headset. Whether or not that pans out remains to be seen.
Despite both the physical and theorized Samsung ties, Mac compatibility has been added to the Oculus Rift DK2, making good on the start-up company's promise to support Apple machines. All five OS X game developers are rejoicing right now.
Oculus Rift DK2 drops the first interation's control box in favor of integrating the guts into the headset itself. Only a single cable - HDMI and USB woven together - dangls from your face.
The new kit also comes with a motion-tracking camera, which allows for greater movement within the world of the Rift. It looks a bit like a webcam, and a lot like a PlayStation Eye camera from the PS3 days.
It features a blue "on" light and an Oculus logo, but its true power isn't visible to the naked eye. It uses forty infrared LEDs on the headset to track your head movements and integrate them into the game. These LEDs were visible on the version we tried at CES 2014, but not anymore.
In the demos we saw at GDC 2014, this meant players could lean in for a closer look at in-game objects and characters. These were the same demos we saw at CES, with the exception of a new one by Epic Games, which integrated the player into the game a unique way.
The game was a one on one battle between two sword and shield wielding avatars. It takes place in a living room, where players can see representations of themselves seated in the room, controller in hand. To keep an eye on the fight we had to swivel our head and crane our neck.
The Rift was a surreal experience as always; when our opponent turned his head or leaned forward it gave his neck a stretched, snake-like appearance. And when one of the battling avatars leapt up onto your lap, you half expect to feel his little feet on your legs.
If you've used the previous Rift, know that Crystal Cove is a night and day difference. The higher resolution makes all the difference in the world; it's like going from Skyrim on a four-year-old PC to one from last year.
Note that we say last year; the Oculus Rift still isn't sporting visuals that you could call next gen. There are still jaggedly rendered objects, but the immersive nature of the experience trumps graphics any day, and is one you need to see to believe.
Movies come to Oculus Rift at Comic-Con
Comic-Con 2014 provided a different sort of experience - with entertainment at the forefront - and maybe one we can expect more of now that Facebook owns Oculus VR.
Both Twenty Century Fox and Warner Bros. were backing new Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2 units at the cosplay-filled San Diego convention with demos for their X-Men and Into the Storm films.
The X-Men Cerebro Experience provided the more surreal experience as attendees slipped into the wheelchair and saw through the eyes of mutant leader Professor Charles Xavier. He, fittingly, donned the just-as-snug brain amplifying mutant detector Cerebro on his own head.
The concept involved seeking the shapeshifting mutant Mystique by looking 360 degrees in any direction. She was hiding in a Comic-Con crowd that was fictitious and barren - it would have been cooler if it used augmented reality here.
The actual hunt was automated and fairly boring, but Professor X's replica wheelchair at the Fox booth provided developers with the opportunity to predict the location of our limbs and torso. It accurately overlayed his body onto our own.
Obviously, this demo didn't call for much movement and that worked to the movie studio's advantage. It could easily trick your mind into thinking that the Professor's subtle finger tap on the armrest was your own with a "Wait, I didn't just do that!"
Into the Storm upped the energy level with simulated tornado winds inside a small glass both built by Warner Bros. Through the first-person perspective, we saw three characters hunker down behind a gated sewer entrance, truck-sized debris smash against its ironclad bars and pipes burst with gushing water.
It didn't have the advantage of a stationary wheelchair-bound character to map our bodies and there was no interaction whatsoever, but Warner Bros did aptly demo its new disaster movie with this terrifying scene recreation. It also messed up our hair.
Both X-Men Cerebro Experience and Into the Storm also gave us insight into how big-name movie studios intend to use Oculus Rift to invent new ways of enjoying theatrical experiences. Video games were just the beginning.
Hands on CES 2014
Oculus Rift gets more impressive every time we see it, and the futuristic virtual reality headset's appearance at CES 2014 was definitely no exception.
Since E3 2013 Oculus VR has gained impressive talent and raised an extra $75 million in funding, and the result is the Oculus Rift Crystal Cove prototype (named for a state park in southern California). It's significantly easier on the eyes than older versions of the headset and, by extension, closer than ever to the Rift's final, fully functional, consumer-facing form.
The two game demos Oculus co-founder Nate Mitchell showed us in a private meeting room at CES were designed to showcase two new features: positional head-tracking and low persistence, both of which help make the virtual reality experience more immersive and address some users' complaints with the headset, including motion blur-induced nausea.
The head-tracking is the most obvious improvement. The new white studs on the Oculus Crystal Cove prototype's face are indicators that communicate your head's position to a new external camera, mounted near your monitor. As a result the full movements of your upper body, not just the sideways and up/down movements of your head, are detected and translated to the game world.
That means you can lean forward while playing CCP Games' extremely impressive 3D space-shooting game EVE: Valkyrie, bringing your in-game face closer to your space ship's various monitors and switches so you can better read their warnings and instructions. Since the very first demo Oculus Rift has inserted players into virtual worlds, and with this addition it's a more immersive experience than ever.
Get low, low, low, low
Second and more subtle is the low persistence, which makes the Oculus Rift's somewhat notorious motion blur a thing of the past. Now the graphics remain more clear and sharp even when you move your head around rapidly. There's still a tiny amount of blurring, but it's a massive improvement over the previous version of Oculus Rift.
To prove it Mitchell turned low persistence off and then on as we moved around, and although the image became darker with it on, it almost totally alleviated what was previously one of the Rift's biggest issues.
The tech behind the low persistence is somewhat complex, but Mitchell explained the gist of it. Essentially the new "Crystal Cove" Oculus Rift's OLED display has zero latency, so it takes the pixels no time at all to change color.
Even then, Mitchell said, there was some blurring, but Oculus alleviated it even further by programming the pixels to consistently but imperceptibly flicker on and off, only turning on when they have "good" data to display.
That new OLED display is also full HD 1080p, just like the prototype Oculus showed off behind closed doors at E3 2013. That of course helps as well.
We played EVE: Valkyrie at E3 2013 as well, though on the older, lower-resolution Oculus Rift. In 1080p, and with minimal motion blur and the new positional head-tracking, it was even more immersive now than it was back then - and that's saying something, because even that first time it was totally mind-blowing.
Piloting a space ship with an Xbox 360 controller while you look around the cockpit and target enemies with the motions of your head is one of the most impressive gaming experiences ever created. It feels like the first time you played Super Mario 64, or Halo, or Wolfenstein - completely fresh and like it has the potential to change the world of gaming. And right now it's only a demo.
The other software Oculus had at CES was a very basic defense game built by Epic Games in Unreal Engine 4. It's an evolution of one of the original Oculus Rift demos Oculus showed around - the one where users simply walked or floated around several beautiful but interaction-light Unreal Engine 4 environments, including a snowy mountain and the lava-filled lair of a scary-looking demon lord.
Now, that demon sits on his throne across from you, the player, he being your apparent opponent. Around you is his cavernous, fiery lair, and before you is something like a 3D board game with moving pieces. He sends tiny dwarves marching inexorably toward your goal, and you press buttons on the Xbox 360 controller to fire arrows, cannonballs and flamethrowers at them.
There are two views: one overhead and one from closer to the game's level, almost like you're leaning down toward it to put on your thinking cap. And thanks to that positional head-tracking you can actually lean forward to peer into the game and examine the little dwarves up close. You can look into their faces as they're pinned with arrows and crisped with fire.
The experience of playing a game inside a game world is not unique to Oculus Rift. This little game, though still very basic, could conceivably be a mini-game within some epic, sprawling RPG. But like with everything else, playing it on Oculus Rift makes you feel like you're really there.
Mitchell said the camera that enables the positional tracking may be only a temporary solution. But whatever Oculus settles on to make sure the final version of Oculus Rift features full six-point head-tracking will be included with the unit, whether that means bundling a camera in or something else.
There's still no projected release date or final pricing for the consumer product that the Oculus Rift Crystal Cove prototype will eventually become, despite rumors of a Christmas 2014 goal that Mitchell would neither confirm nor deny. And the conspicuous indicator lights on the Crystal Cove's front aren't final either, Mitchell revealed, even if they do look kind of cool.
Mitchell and his colleagues at Oculus VR seem to think the Rift still has a long way to go. That may very well be true, but the fact is the Oculus Rift is the coolest product in the world right now, and it gets better every time we see it.
Alex Roth and Matt Swider also contributed to these hands-on previews