Our first dalliances with virtual reality (VR) were with Virtuality, a system created by W. Industries back in the early 90s, and it blew our minds at the time.
The graphics were basic and blurry, the headsets cumbersome and heavy, and a session with a Virtuality machine in an arcade often left us befuddled and queasy. But it offered a different type of gaming experience and had us intrigued as to how it might progress in future.
That particular tech – and VR in general – soon retreated back into obscurity, like many innovative but poorly realised technologies are bound to do. So while we were always hopeful it would return in some fashion one day, we kind of forgot all about it. We made do with PlayStation and Xbox consoles instead.
However, some 20 years later, we were thrilled and amazed when Oculus first hit Kickstarter with its plans to reintroduce VR into our lives. Touting what was to end up as the Oculus Rift headset and, despite it taking a further three or so iterations to get the final consumer device into our hands, its arrival couldn't be better timed.
Virtual reality is a magical, wonderful proposition that never fails to delight. And in many respects, the Oculus Rift offers the perfect portal to experience the tech at its current best, with graphics and depth that a mobile platform couldn't possibly hope to rival. But it does come with its caveats, as we shall explain...
Oculus Rift review: Taking control
The Oculus Rift headset is a less complicated beast than its main rival, the HTC Vive. When we reviewed the latter, we bemoaned the requirement and placement of sensors to ensure that you can be tracked while physically moving around a designated space. Not so with the Oculus Rift. At present, it's better suited to sitting or standing in one spot, and therefore only needs the one sensor which is easy to plonk on a desk or cabinet.
It means the overall experience is hamstrung a tad in comparison, but at least the set-up is a doddle. As long as the sensor is pointing straight at your head it will track you sufficiently to play any of the games that don't require the use of the Oculus Touch controllers (sold separately).
You are, however, provided with an Xbox One controller, a wireless dongle for it to communicate with your computer, and a small Oculus remote to interact with experiences that only require a few clicks. The aforementioned Oculus Touch motion controllers are not expected to hit stores until late 2016, so current games and software titles are all usable through at least one of the two included controller mechanisms.
Oculus Rift review: Headset design
The headset itself is fairly lightweight at around 470g. It feels comfortable to wear, even during prolonged play sessions, and the detachable foam lining around the eyepiece ensures that you can wear it as tight as needed for visual clarity, yet not feel too constrained. It also allows the use of glasses for those who would rather wear them while playing.
There are elasticated, adjustable straps for a perfect fit and stereo headphones are strapped to either side. The Rift is the only headset currently on the market that offers built-in earpieces and that helps when using the device on an ad-hoc, day-to-day basis. We'd recommend separate cans if you want better audio performance, but for speed of use it's great that you don't have to go through the rigmarole of putting on a pair every time.
The only other feature of the headset itself – bar its screen quality, which we'll come to shortly – is a switch to space the lenses to best suit your eyesight. You can move them closer or further apart in order to sharpen the image. We also suggest that you tighten the straps as much as possible, which will further reduce image blurriness. The tighter and more stable the headset on your noggin, the better the clarity.
Oculus Rift review: Ultimate clarity?
The screen in the Oculus Rift uses OLED technology – so is vibrant and rich when in use. It has a resolution of 2160 x 1200 pixels in total, so serves 1080 x 1200 pixels to each eye. A 90Hz (90fps) refresh rate ensures action is smooth enough to prevent nausea during movement; it's a higher refresh than many competitors.
You can just about make out individual pixels during static brighter scenes, mainly if you're purposely looking for them, but if that's the case, the game itself is not doing enough to hold your attention. Games that are as immersive as Project Cars or Eve: Valkyrie should distract you enough to never notice pixels.
It must be said that the headset gets warm with lengthy use, which can prompt you to halt a lengthy bout of play, and your eyes can also get a little sore when flitting from one experience to another. We found a 30-minute blast to be absolutely fine, but more than that and you are wholly advised to take breaks.
Oculus Rift review: Note about nausea
Throughout Oculus' development phase, there have been plenty of reports of headsets making people feel sick. We even had a moment of extreme nausea when playing Minecraft in VR using an earlier concept Oculus device, but it tends to vary from game to game, depending on their control systems and construction, rather than the headsets themselves. Thankfully, Oculus rates each available experience in terms of how extreme or comfortable they are to play.
For the most part, we have felt fine whenever we've used the consumer Rift, as long as we took regular breaks from the action and there was plenty of air circulating through the room. There's often a sense of displacement and an odd acclimatisation period as soon as the headset is removed, but it soon passes and doesn't feel too uncomfortable.
Essentially, these are going to be traits of virtual reality no matter the headset, be it Rift, Vive, PlayStation VR or even the mobile system of Samsung Gear VR. You'll have to decide whether you can get used to such feelings. If not, VR really isn't for you – at least with the current platforms.
Oculus Rift review: Worth the cash?
If you do want to take the plunge into VR and buy an Oculus Rift headset then you have to consider the cost. It costs £549 post-Brexit, but that doesn't take into account that it also requires a beefy PC to run everything. That will invariably cost you much more – at least twice the price of the Rift if you want games to run at their best.
During our testing period, we've tried it with a self-constructed gaming PC that has more than the recommended minimum specifications – including 16GB RAM (twice the recommended 8GB) and an Intel Core i7 4790K processor (i5 4590 is the suggested minimum). However, it wasn't until we boosted our graphics card up to an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 that everything ran without any fuss whatsoever. You can certainly get by with lesser spec: Nvidia's GTX 1060 card is a cheaper, very capable option; or seek out a second-hand GTX 970.
When you also consider that the Touch controllers will cost around £190 when they arrive, it's a hell of a lot to shell out to be an early adopter in a new entertainment format, as mind-blowing as it can be at times.
That's why this generation of Oculus Rift is more likely aimed at and will be bought by self-confessed geeks (a group to which we belong) rather than general public. Yes, it is now sold in highstreet stores in the UK and US, but it will mainly attract those who have already invested in the technology to drive it. And they will put up with its caveats too.
It must be remembered that this is a first generation device – putting aside the devkits and prototypes. It is delicate and complex, and while groundbreaking and well-built, still feels like something a PC accessory manufacturer might make than a product from a consumer lifestyle brand.
Oculus Rift review: Staring at the sun
It even has to be handled with care when not in use, thanks to an inherent issue with super-focused lenses. As we found to our cost with our first Rift headset, you cannot leave the lenses pointing anywhere near a window or it runs the risk of irreparably damaging the OLED panel.
Remember the old trick of burning a piece of paper with a magnifying glass on a sunny day? Well imagine that, only replace the paper with a hugely expensive, inaccessible full-colour display. We can tell you now, through experience, that it's hard to concentrate on fighter craft in a space battle when there's a mighty red blob streaked across the field of view. It's not covered by the warranty either.
So we'd suggest that only those who are experienced in handling their tech are best suited for Oculus Rift mark one. They'll certainly get the most from it, as it is an impressive piece of kit that provides experiences that still wow – even after countless hours of play.
The Oculus Rift is the reason why Facebook bought the VR hardware company and it's easy to see why. But these are still early days for the technology - and while 2016 looked poised to be the year of VR, there's a whole lot more yet to come.
The HTC Vive is already available and PlayStation VR could be a massive success when it launches in October, thanks to its huge target audience of PS4 owners. But even those utilise first-generation technologies so have their foibles.
As it stands, the Rift is a comfortable, pleasant VR headset that is well supported in software terms and offers great potential. It is pricey – pricier still if you don't already own a PC capable of running it – but you are buying into something fresh and new.
Geeks like us will adore it, but we'd advise a little caution if you're not. Just look down at the shirt you're wearing: if it has Sonic the Hedgehog or a 1980s NES controller emblazoned across it, you'll go mad for a Rift; if not then maybe you should try a demo in a store near you before making a final decision.