It has been almost four years in the making but the consumer model of the Oculus Rift is nearly upon us. It is available for pre-order now and will ship to some of the earliest backers from April.
Having first appeared on Kickstarter in August 2012, the now Facebook-owned Oculus has been through several development and prototype virtual reality headsets on its way to a full launch, but the consumer model Rift was finally unveiled in summer of 2015.
Since then, the company has been demonstrating it on the build-up to the full release, as well as some of the other kit that will likely follow in the months thereafter.
Pocket-lint has also been there every step of the way - playing games and experiencing increasingly impressive VR demos in order to fully understand the hook behind the Oculus hardware and virtual reality in general. We have grown from VR sceptics to VR evangelists as the technology has improved and now that it is fit for public consumption, we feel ready to answer the question of whether Oculus Rift will set the world alight or not.
Oculus Rift hardware
There have been plenty of Oculus headsets released to developers over the last four years but the only one of note now will be the Oculus Rift itself. It will also come with an Xbox One controller in the box, which can be used with all of the games and interactive experiences, and there will be a separate, wireless remote control too, which will help browse through the store, etc.
Oculus Rift headset
Unlike many of its earlier guises, the Oculus Rift headset is a light, comfortable device that fits over the head simply and easily, with straps that can be tightened for a better fit.
It still looks a bit like strapping a shoebox to your face - there really is little escaping that with modern VR - but once you are immersed in the experiences you'll not care a jot.
It has cushioned foam around the visor to prevent rubbing or chafing, and there is plenty of space for those who wear glasses to keep them on without much hassle. A dial on the headset itself can also adjust the lenses inside to ensure that you get the clearest picture possible.
In comparison to early development kit models, the Rift is extremely comfortable to wear. We've had plenty of demos now in the consumer version and have never felt it getting too heavy or cumbersome. Indeed, the experiences were so good that we'd even forgotten that it was on for most of the time.
Eye strain is one minor issue, which could happen after particularly long bouts of gaming or watching video, but there are plenty of technologies built-in to counter that problem.
Motion blurring and judder, for example, are kept to a minimum. On early headsets, we often found the experience jarring after a period because the resolution was poor or frame rates were not quite right. The consumer Oculus Rift however, has two 1080 x 1200 pixel OLED screens - one for each eye - running at 90Hz (frames per second). That ensures high quality, smooth action, preventing eye strain or nausea.
We've spent 15-30 minutes at a time inside the headset and have had none of the shakiness we've encountered with previous models and, indeed, some rival devices in the past.
Early headsets also required the use of third-party headphones for audio, but the Oculus Rift comes with a pair of virtual surround headphones built-in. They are placed either side of the headset and you can adjust them so that they are over each ear.
The headset also comes dotted in IR LEDs that work with an included motion control sensor to help track head position and tell software whether the user is sitting or standing. It can tell which direction you are facing - if you've turned your head around for example.
Lastly, the headset is wired. Sadly, as Oculus explained to us at CES in January, a wireless headset with the ability of the Oculus Rift is still a long way off. You can get wireless headsets that are driven by mobile phones, such as Google Cardboard and the Samsung Gear VR - also made by Oculus - but to get the full virtual reality experience you really need to be hooked up to a PC, and that is through a cable.
Oculus Rift controller
Like rival HTC, Oculus will be introducing motion controllers in the future - later this year it is said - but on launch the headset will come with a wireless Xbox One controller.
In gaming terms, the Xbox One controller is one of the best gamepads there has ever been. It is comfortable and sturdy in the hand, while the buttons and thumbsticks are in natural, easy-to-find places. That's essential as you'll not be able to look down to find the right button when an alien spacecraft is about to obliterate you.
Oculus also claims that the majority of games that are being developed for the Rift are being done so with the Xbox One controller in mind. Certainly, we've used one for many of the demos we've experienced and played over the last few months and it feels natural and responsive.
The Oculus Touch controllers, which we've also used in prototype form, are actually more advanced than the HTC Vive equivalents and could be a game changer when they do go on sale. Literally.
They wrap around each hand and offer triggers and a thumbstick for interaction, but where they most stand out is that there are different sensors/buttons for different finger sets. The forefinger, for example, is tracked independently to the other three fingers on each hand. The thumb also has its own sensor.
This allows the Touch controllers to accurately ape your own hands, giving precise control over gripping actions - you can even give a thumbs up gesture.
The only drawback we can see at present is that every time we've used the Oculus Touch controllers, they have had to be fitted on our hands by an assistant in the same room after the headset has already been put on (you can't fit the headset with the controllers in your hands). That could prove very difficult if you're planning a play session on your tod.
For video and other browsing functions, an included wireless remote control, with simple buttons for home, back, select and volume controls, will help navigate without having to hold a gamepad.
Oculus Rift sensor
The last piece of kit that comes with the Oculus Rift is a motion sensor for the company's "Constellation" positional tracking system.
It looks a bit like a cigar camera, with a small mount that you can place on a table or shelf in front of you. You can also screw it onto a tripod if you don't have a good position elsewhere.
As previously mentioned, the headset is covered with infra red LEDs, which the sensor picks up in order to track head positioning. Other sensors can also be added in the future, for more precise tracking or if you acquire the Oculus Touch controllers at a later date.
There are other sensors inside the headset itself - a magnetometer, a gyroscope and an accelerometer. The end result being, in our experience, a smooth, seamless experience that has no lag and enables fast and accurate responses to user movement.
Oculus Rift release date and price
The Oculus Rift consumer model costs £500 and is currently available to pre-order. Originally it was due to ship in April, with many customers getting their versions at that time, but thanks to the outstanding demand Oculus has had so far, it now lists shipping for new orders as July 2016.
For that money, you get the headset, motion sensor, wireless remote control, Xbox One controller and all the cables needed to link it to a high-end PC. It also comes with cute platform game Lucky's Tale. Those who pre-order before April will also get EVE: Valkyrie for free.
The £500 price does not include shipping or local taxes, so take those into account too.
Oculus Rift PC requirements (minimum spec)
Along with the price for the headset and included goodies, some of you might have to shell out even more to ensure you can actually run the Rift.
Oculus has been very open for a long time that to get the right experience with its consumer headset, you will need a beefy PC rig. It released the recommended specifications early doors and while they shocked some, at least the company gave enough time for eager users to upgrade.
To get the full Oculus Rift experience, it requires at minimum the following:
- Windows 7 SP1 64-bit or newer
- Nvidia GTX 970 or AMD R9 290 graphics card
- Intel i5-4590 processor
- 8GB RAM
- HDMI 1.3 video out
- Three USB 3.0 ports and one USB 2.0 port
You can actually find out if your PC is fully compatible through a small piece of software that checks the specs and gives you the thumbs up or thumbs down. It can be downloaded from Oculus' own website at oculus.com.
Oculus Rift games and content
Oculus plans to have a large storefront that can be accessed in a virtual space while wearing the Rift. You can then buy and download games and experiences from there.
All Oculus Rift purchases will come with one game as part of the bundle - a cute platformer called Lucky's Tale from developer Playful. It looks, from the trailer video, a bit like the Conker or Banjo-Kazooie games of old, but with you inside the world instead of peering in through a 2D screen.
We've not actually played that title yet, but have experienced plenty of others. Some of them have blown our tiny minds.
Oculus Rift: EVE: Valkyrie
If you pre-order the Oculus Rift, as well as Lucky's Tale you'll also get a free copy of EVE: Valkyrie, the space combat simulation game that has been in development almost as long as the hardware itself.
We actually played a very early version of the game on the first HD version of an Oculus development kit, with a lower resolution than will be available with the final Oculus Rift. We still loved the idea though.
There are many elements of the game that were even present in the early demos.
You still sit in the cockpit of a small space fighter, for example, much like those in Battlestar Galactica or an X-Wing in Star Wars, and you can look out into space. You also have the technical dashboard and, even, your own legs in front of you.
To aid the concept, developer CCP has added a look to target mechanism, which encourages you to look around constantly, and you soon get used to looking in the direction you want to travel, even though it is the movements on the controller that determine direction.
Other than that, it's shooty-shooty in a vast and dangerous universe, and seems ideal for virtual reality.
Oculus Rift: Elite: Dangerous
Like EVE: Valkyrie, we played a version of Elite: Dangerous on an early Oculus headset, but similarly it wowed us with the scope, realism and depth.
We've played the game plenty of times on a PC and Xbox One since, using a conventional 2D screen, so understand how incredible it will be to traverse the galaxy while wearing Rift. The full game can be played wearing the headset too. You'll just have to remember to surface for food occasionally.
The craft used for the original Oculus Rift demo session was a larger cargo ship. It had weapons but was slower than spaceships designed for fighting. It also had a completely glass front, that enveloped the outer hull, allowing you to see objects above, below and to the sides. And this is what initially made us go wow.
We started in an enormous docking station with a ship passing us by in the top-right hand corner. It illustrated the heightened experience that Oculus Rift added to the mix in the best way possible, and that was even before we lifted off and thrust ourselves into space.
After leaving the dock, we hyperspaced to a remote system with a Sol-like yellow star (which looked superb, it must be said) and were almost immediately set-up by several bandits.
Being able to actually look around the cockpit and, because of the glass front, track enemies visually as well as on the radar was an incredible experience. And we're happy to say we managed to win our battle, vanquishing all foes in about 15 minutes.
Oculus Rift: The Climb
Possibly the best gaming experience we've had within an Oculus world so far is with Crytek's The Climb. It is planned as one of the launch titles - or coming soon after - and is the sort of game that is specific to a virtual reality playing field.
It came about as several employees of Crytek are climbers in real life, so they wanted to develop something that would emulate the thrill of hanging off the side of a rock face with just your fingertips. And boy have they succeeded.
To be completely honest, we've never actually climbed anything - save for a kitchen stool to change a lightbulb and a tree when we were younger (which we promptly fell back out of) - so can't really tell you how accurate an experience the game provides. But we can vouch for its effect on our heart rate and the amount of perspiration we left on the Xbox One controller once we'd finished just one level.
The game itself - once the headset is firmly in place - is kind-of like a first-person version of the climbing parts of the Uncharted or Tomb Raider series. There are obvious hand holds in the rock which you can grab using the right or left triggers on the controller (for whichever hand is free) and the game engine moves you along automatically to that position.
The biggest thrills come, much like in the adventure games mentioned, when you can't reach the next hand hold - or even see it. Then you have no option but to look in the direction of it and leap, hoping to grab it with one of your hands as you pass. This often results in you plummeting from a great height to your inevitable demise, but if you time it right and look and grab (hit the specific trigger) at the right time, you'll be able to continue.
It's hugely stressful, but very satisfying when you make it.
Oculus Rift: Game of Thrones
HBO and Sky commissioned a special virtual reality experience based on Game of Thrones that we caught up with during the London leg of the GoT exhibition last year. Called Ascend the Wall, it took users on an interactive ride to the top of the famed wall at Castle Black and threw in a surprise or two along the way.
We're not sure if you'll get to try it out for yourself, or if HBO has plans to release it onto the Oculus store in future, but it's well worth it if you are a Game of Thrones fan.
You should be warned that there were plenty of screams coming from the other booths around us during the exhibition, mind.
Oculus Rift: Edge of Nowhere
Of all the more recent games we've tried on the Oculus Rift, Insomniac's Edge of Nowhere would probably work as well outside of a virtual space on a normal 2D screen.
That's not to say it isn't as thrilling a VR event as we've encountered before. Indeed, much of the Cthulian survival horror action adventure cleverly used point of view to make us jittery. But we wonder if third-person games are ideal for the format.
Oculus Rift: VR Sports Challenge
Much more like it is VR Sports Challenge.
It is a little more VR centric that Edge of Nowhere in that it put us in the skates of an ice hockey keeper. In arcade mini-game style, we had to deflect pucks left and right as they were fired at us and it was a great, fun example of the sort of title that will work for release.
We were also told that the final game will feature basketball, American football and baseball mini-games too. Sort of Wii Sports for Oculus.
Oculus Rift: Chronos
Another third-person game, but one that moves more slowly so doesn't disorient as much as Edge of Nowhere, Chronos is an adventure role-playing-game with enormous rooms to explore and puzzles to solve.
The game replaced the right thumbstick camera used with normal games of its ilk with a fixed position. However, you could look around each room as you entered and they were vast.
Monsters and denizens were also god-like, so huge. And you really got a sense of scale.
This is one of the games we're looking forward to playing a lot more in the coming months.
Oculus Rift: Oculus Touch concept demo
We've played with the Oculus Touch controllers a couple of times now, in the form of the Half Moon prototype versions, and each time it delights. The demo using them is especially worth seeking out if you ever get a chance.
The controllers work in a similar way to Sony's Move accessories, but have control over your fingers too. The bottom three fingers can be opened or closed, the trigger finger has a separate touch control, and there are thumbsticks too. This way you almost have complete control over your hands in the virtual space and the software were experienced showed every aspect of how this could be useful.
It was fun too as we were joined in the virtual world by an Oculus employee who we could see and hear in the software, but was actually in a different room. We played ping pong with complete control over the bat, threw boomerangs, caught balls and so much more. Perhaps the most impressive part was that the table in front of us was so convincing that we were disoriented to find after the experience that it wasn't there.
Oculus Rift: Alien: Isolation
One of the first times we realised the potential of VR gaming over and above the ability to put you into countless first-person shooters was when we played a specially-created level of Alien: Isolation at Sega's headquarters. It was terrifying.
The demo was created especially to show off what is possible when the Oculus Rift headset is combined with the survival horror nature of Sega's game. It only lasted three minutes, but that was enough to have us gibbering like fools.
It dispensed with the puzzle and stealth elements of the main game - which won the Best Game category of the Pocket-lint Gadget Awards a year or so ago - and simply had you play cat and mouse in a tight environment with the alien. We were the mouse, by the way.
We had nothing to hand save for a motion tracker, which was used to see which direction the one enemy was coming from. We couldn't kill the alien. We couldn't outrun the alien. All we could do was hide whenever it was near.
The idea was simply to escape, apparently achievable in the set three minutes. We also musn't die, which was achievable in far less than three minutes.
We did neither. We managed to elude the creature for the whole three minutes in which case the demo ended. We were asked if we wanted to have another go, but genuinely felt too shaken up to go back inside the rig again. Great, if scary stuff.
Oculus Rift: Training with the England rugby team
As England rugby sponsor, O2 created a fully immersive experience that enabled us - through an Oculus Rift - to virtually train with the England team.
The Wear the Rose experience was filmed using nine GoPro Hero 3 cameras with custom-built gimbals strapped to players while training. After 160 hours of filming and 320 hours of development, the full 360-degree virtual participation was ready.
The result was an Oculus Rift experience that let users feel they were getting tackled by hooker Tom Youngs, or receiving a pass from fullback Mike Brown. But without the pain.
When we gave it a go, it was a prototype experience but showed us the non-gaming potential for Oculus Rift and its ability to immerse within full 360-degree videos.
Oculus Rift: Banshee Chapter
One of the first 360-degree interactive movies to be released for Rift is horror flick Banshee Chapter. We got a chance to watch it ourselves in late 2014.
The film was produced by actor Zachary Quinto of Star Trek and Heroes fame, with an adaptation carried out by Jamwix studios which created software that simulates placing the viewer inside the scenes.
Since this was an after-thought adaptation it doesn't take full advantage of the Oculus Rift's 360-degree view but is limited to 120-degrees. It's a still a far wider field of view than most films though and definitely offers a more immersive experience.
We will say though that wearing a Rift headset for a whole feature length film experience can be hard on the eyes. You might want to take a break every now and again.
Oculus Rift: Shell V-Power demo
The Shell V-Power Oculus Rift experience is reminiscent of movies such as Fantastic Voyage or Innerspace. It shrinks you to about the size of a single drop of petrol and places you in a tiny craft. However, instead of racing you through the blood veins of a human being, you get a 3D virtual reality ride through an engine, halting along the way in the most important parts, while former F1 commentator Murray Walker describes what's happening.
Pocket-lint was one of the first in the world to try out the experience originally, when we visited Shell's marketing company in 2014, but the final version was ready for public consumption in the company's hospitality suite at the Eau Rouge corner of the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps during the Belgian Grand Prix later that year.
The ride is on rails. There's no interaction bar the fact that you can look all around you as you travel, but as an exercise in education, the V-Power demo works. We certainly found out more about the inner workings of a modern motor engine.
Oculus Rift: Current challenges
Oculus has not been shy in admitting that its first consumer headset is more aimed at gamers as early adopters. It is they that more than likely own the PC kit sturdy enough to provide a full VR experience. As such, most of the focus has been on gaming in the build up to release.
And that's no bad thing. There are plenty of other experiences available too, with plenty of 360-degree films and videos to enjoy and multiple tech demos, but gaming is what will no doubt drive the uptake of Oculus Rift.
It could also be where it and VR in general could fail.
There is little doubt that games experienced from within an Oculus Rift headset are greatly enhanced. The greater resolution of the consumer model over its development kit predecessors helps with immersion and, bar one or two exceptions, we've not wanted our demos to end, once we've been thrown into the virtual world.
But as with all gaming hardware, it will live and die based on the software support. There are plenty of developers creating VR experiences and games for it presently, but there were plenty creating Wii U games several years ago.
It will depend on the take-up of the device and for that to happen it will have to drop in price over the next year, we feel.
Strangely perhaps, we think £500 is a good price for the hardware you're getting, cheap even. However, it's not pocket change and neither are the fees to upgrade your PC to run one.
One thing we do feel strongly about though, is that VR is definitely going to work this time around. And Oculus is in a very strong position to lead the charge.
Every time we've come in contact with an Oculus headset we've been very impressed.
Even the earliest days, when the action was blurry and, even, nausea-inducing thanks to the low resolutions and low frame rates, the experiences still wowed.
Oculus Rift in comparison though is another world. Its 1080 x 1200 resolution per eye is superb - you soon forget that pixels exist. And everything runs very smoothly indeed.
There is also something magical about being transported into a game rather than being a distant bystander and because Oculus has been the flag-bearer for the technology since its Kickstarter success many moons ago, it is in a great position to capitalise.
Whether your first experience with VR will be in your own home or at an event of some kind, it is likely it will be on an Oculus headset. And in the consumer Oculus Rift, from what we've played with so far, we're sure you'll always leave happy.