Among the many holy grails of video gaming is the virtual reality headset. Attempted (and mocked) many times since at least the early 1990s, the creation of a commercially viable immersive head-mounted personal video screen for video games has remained out of reach.
But the concept is appealing enough that a recent Kickstarter project named Oculus Rift raised over $2.4 million, almost ten times its original $250,000 goal. The head-mounted unit puts a single display in front of your eyes, split in the middle, working much like a TV with active-shutter stereoscopic 3D glasses.
I got a chance to test-drive the latest prototype version of the Oculus Rift hardware, and while many of the proposed features are still missing and only a handful of software apps support it, under the right conditions, it indeed works as advertised.
The headset I tried is bulky, essentially built by hand into an oversize pair of ski goggles. It's surprisingly light, though: just under half a pound, according to Oculus. These hand-built units represent "Day Zero," as Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe told me, but he expects fabricated units for game developers to be available in December.
The current prototype has a 1,280x800-pixel display, which is split between your two eyes, working out to dual 640x800-pixel screens. That's on the low side, even for something that close to your face, and the company says the final consumer version will have a much higher screen resolution.
The headset connects to a PC via a breakout box, with an HDMI cable for video (this early version uses DVI, as shown in the photo) and a USB cable for transmitting motion-sensor data.
When you put the headset on and launch a game, the effect is similar to stereoscopic 3D gaming on a laptop or desktop, but without the 2D world creeping into your peripheral vision. That means it's more immersive, but also potentially more disconcerting. Some people have trouble with stereoscopic 3D glasses. I'm fine with those, but I could only use the Oculus Rift for a few minutes before I had to take a break. It's an effect that may take some getting used to.
That said, it was indeed incredibly immersive, especially being able to rotate my head 360 degrees (which has the same effect as using the left analog stick on a game pad). The low resolution in this prototype was evident, with a serious screen door effect. Consumers will definitely demand a higher resolution from a final product.
But, playing Doom 3 (one of the handful of games that has announced an Oculus-compatible version) it was effective, if slightly claustrophobic. Moving my head also moved the in-game camera and my weapon aim, and the viewing angle could be augmented by moving the left analog stick on my game pad. Aiming was surprisingly easy when I encountered a few of Doom's monsters, I just had to look directly at them to aim. A second demo, with a virtual room set up to explore, made excellent use of the 3D effect, allowing me to get up close to 3D objects in the game and examine them from multiple angles. There was little to no lag in my view, and after a few minutes, movement felt very natural.
With only a couple of working apps and literally hand-assembled hardware, it's difficult to judge what the Oculus Rift will be like as a consumer product, which is at least a year or two away, if not more. The real hurdle will be getting game developers to use the company's software tools to create content for the device by making new games or reworking current games to be compatible. Considering Sony and Microsoft have largely given up on getting game publishers to create stereoscopic 3D living-room console games after just a couple of years, that could be an uphill battle.