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 smartphone-based platform couldn't possibly hope to rival.
But Oculus does come with its caveats, as we shall explain...
Oculus Rift: Setup and settings
Out of the box, the Oculus Rift includes the headset, two tracking sensors and two touch controllers. Rift has changed a bit since it was first released, as the original device came with a wireless Xbox One controller, a small Oculus remote and a single sensor. The current iteration comes with two sensors, two touch controllers and a whole lot of hopes and dreams.
It's still compatible with an Xbox controller, steering wheels, joysticks or just a keyboard and mouse combination, giving you a multitude of control options for a wide range of VR games – which include everything from flight sims to strategy games, zombie shooters, horror adventures and much more besides.
We found the initial setup takes a fair amount of time and a lot of fiddling though. Most of which is spent downloading the Oculus Rift setup software and walking through the setup steps to configure tracking. However, optional downloads like the Sensor Bounds software and driver updates helped us get over other problem hurdles we had.
Once the initial setup is complete and you put the headset on, it puts you into a basic tutorial that gets you working through the various buttons and controls. You're then dropped into what is essentially a virtual robot laboratory and you get to play with a little robot and a 3D printer which creates some pretty impressive mini-games.
The main interface for Oculus is user-friendly. With the headset donned you're confronted with the VR environment, which includes the Oculus store where you can buy new games and download experiences.
If you have VR games on Steam that you want to play then these need to be launched from your PC desktop instead. Steam VR does works with the Oculus Rift too though, so once you've played a game it's easy to launch it again from within the standard Oculus interface.
VR tracking capabilities
- Two IR LED sensors as standard. A third can be purchased for 360-degree (experimental) tracking
- Accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer and constellation tracking camera
- 5 x 5 feet maximum tracking area – compared with 15 x 15 on Vive
- Room-scale experiences
- Six Degrees of Freedom movement tracking
The Oculus Rift's two tracking sensors come with stands, making them ideal to sit on a desk, speaker or bookshelf – and far easier to place than the HTC Vive base stations. These sensors need to be spaced roughly six-feet apart with a good view of your intended play area. Each also requires a USB 3.0 connection, which means you need at least three spare USB connections in order for it the Oculus Rift to function (as the headset also needs one).
However, our biggest issue with the Oculus Rift is these sensors and the length of cables. Even if you can setup the sensors with a good view of the play area you still may find that the headset cables aren't long enough to comfortably stretch into the play space and give you enjoy room to game without finding your head being tugged constantly by a restrictive cable length.
If positioned correctly the sensors work really well at tracking movement within the space, it's just a shame they aren't a bit more flexible – the HTC Vive base stations, for example, don't need a connection to your PC, just their own power. As a result we ended up using a gaming laptop rather than a fixed desktop computer, as it offers more flexibility. You might need be prepared to rearrange your home or gaming area in order to accommodate the Oculus Rift.
Sometimes the Oculus Rift's tracking abilities can be a bit frustrating. We've found our virtual hands flying off to places they shouldn't have been. Overall, while it's generally good, we find Rift's tracking isn't quite as good as the HTC Vive. The play space also isn't as large with Vive, but we didn't find that too limiting as there's still plenty of room to move about within games. Many games allow you to sit down and play too.
Headset design and VR comfort
- Integrated 360-degree spatial audio headphones
- Velcro strap size adjustment
- Lens spacing dial
- AA-battery powered touch controllers
The Oculus Rift is a fairly lightweight headset, weighing 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 glasses wearers to keep their lenses on while playing, if preferred.
There are elasticated, adjustable straps for a perfect fit, and integrated spatial audio headphones strapped to either side. Unlike the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift offers built-in earpieces and that helps when using the device on an ad-hoc, day-to-day basis, as it's just less hassle. You can add your own headphones for a better experience, but it's not essential, unlike with the HTC Vive (which can only mitigate this with the Deluxe Headstrap upgrade).
The only other key feature of the Rift headset – 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 any image blurriness. The tighter and more stable the headset on your noggin, the better the clarity.
Graphics and gameplay capabilities
- 2160 x 1200 pixel OLED display
- 90Hz refresh rate, 100-degree field of view
The screen in the Oculus Rift uses OLED technology – so it's vibrant and rich, with deep blacks. 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.
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 then the game you're playing isn't doing enough to hold your attention. Games that are as immersive as Project Cars, Superhot VR, Knockout League or The Invisible Hours, for example, should distract you enough to never notice pixels.
If you're wearing the headset strapped tight to your face, you may find you can see the very edges of the screen while you play. One time we noticed the straight edges and then we couldn't stop seeing them – a bit like overthinking the Hollywood black bars on a not-widescreen TV. This problem is less prominent on the HTC Vive, but it's only a small niggle in reality as a wide field of view and crystal clear display make for superb gaming most of the time.
It must be said that the headset gets warm with extended 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 really should be taking breaks.
Motion sickness possibilities
If you've looked into VR at all then you've likely heard plenty of reports of headsets making people feel sick nauseous. We've had a bout 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 headset itself. Thankfully, Oculus rates each available experience in terms of how extreme or comfortable they are to play.
Essentially, these are going to be traits of virtual reality no matter the headset. Be it Rift, Vive, PlayStation VR, or even the Samsung Gear VR mobile system. You'll have to decide whether you can get used to such feelings – and just like altitude sickness some people will likely be more prone to nausea than others. Besides, it's not something that'll affect everyone, so for most people there's no need to worry.
As you can imagine, with such impressive technology crammed into a little box, the Oculus Rift needs to be handled with care. We wouldn't recommend bashing it or letting it get knocked, as you wouldn't a cycling helmet or Nintendo Switch.
But, more importantly, you need to ensure you look after the display. There's a known issue with super-focused lenses: leave them pointing anywhere near a window and it runs the risk of irreparably damaging the OLED panel (as we found to our cost with our first Rift headset, whoopsie).
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.
A lens cloth is also included in the package, along with warnings to not use liquids to clean the lenses. Naturally, the lenses are easy to scratch and damage – just like spectacles if you don't look after them properly. That includes cleaning to keep them smear and smudge free during a gaming session. For glasses wearers, there's always the option of prescription lens adapters that protect your Oculus Rift lenses and remove the need to wear your specs while you game.
Is Oculus Rift worth the price?
- Asynchronous SpaceWarp (ASW) tech
If you do want to take the plunge into virtual reality and buy an Oculus Rift then you have to consider the total cost. It costs £399 (post-Brexit anyway), but that doesn't take into account that it also requires a beefy PC to run everything.
Minimum system specs:
- CPU: Intel i3-6100/AMD Ryzen 3 1200, FX4350
- GPU: NVIDIA GTX 1050Ti/AMD Radeon RX 470 or greater
- RAM: 8GB
- 3x USB 3.0 ports
- Windows 10
Something able to run that will invariably cost a fair chunk, but you may have the hardware already, or be looking to buy a gaming laptop anyway. Keep in mind that the more graphical power you want to lend the Rift, the pricier your setup will likely need to be if you want games to run at their best.
The Oculus Rift is the reason why Facebook bought the VR hardware company. And it's easy to see why: gaming geeks will adore it; 'normal' people will have their socks blown off.
As it stands, the Rift is a comfortable-to-use VR headset that is well supported in software terms and still offers great future potential. It's fun, it's credible, it's a firm VR favourite with few true challengers.
Even years after launch, we still believe the Oculus Rift is a brilliant bit of kit that just keeps getting better and better.
Alternatives to consider
Acer Windows Mixed Reality headset
The Acer Windows Mixed Reality headset is one of the cheapest of the current WMR offerings. It's easy to setup, easy to use, and tracks well. With access to some great content, it's certainly an option to consider and doesn't require a mega-powerful PC either.
It's more expensive, sure, but the HTC Vive is the very best virtual reality hardware on offer right now. The quality is superb and there is a wealth of content too. If you're looking to get into VR then this is the most sensible choice.