At GDC 2014 we had a chance to sample the latest version of the Oculus Rift, which is now available for purchase for developers. Check out our impressions below.
The latest version of the VR headset Oculus Rift is finally going out to developers. While the head tracking, 1080p Crystal Cove has been demoed since CES 2014, as of today it's available to developers for just US$350.
That's US$50 more than the past developer kit, which contained a lower resolution Oculus headset and a control box. The new Oculus Rift development kit 2 has no control box – all the guts have been integrated into the headset itself, and the Rift has just a single cable - HDMI and USB woven together.
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.
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.