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Notebook: Wrapping my mind around the Oculus Rift

Teresa Mathew/Daily
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By Steven Tweedie, Daily TV/New Media Editor
Published April 19, 2013

This hands-on review will fail. Even with my most creative analogies, it will fail to accurately illustrate how mind-boggling it is to pull some goggles over your head, open your eyes and suddenly find yourself surrounded by a new environment. And that’s what happens when you strap on the sharpest of cutting-edge technology, the Oculus Rift, a head-mounted display that sucks you into a 3-D virtual world.

The Oculus Rift sent shockwaves through the tech industry after the device’s meteoric crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter, raising just shy of $2.5 million and leaving enthusiasts reeling with thoughts of its potential. Being one of the lucky few that actually own an Oculus Rift Dev Kit, I can confidently say that I’ve put it through the paces. I’ve explored the bombastic gameplay of “Team Fortress 2,” floated in space surrounded by flying cubes and a looming planet, ridden a medieval roller coaster and taken flight Neo-from-“The-Matrix” style, soaring over landscapes and buildings. It’s a great time for virtual-reality enthusiasts as many developers release free demos online via forums for those with developer kits to try out.

There’s a feeling in the air that we’re experiencing the ground level of a new technology — not unsimilar to the first cinemas or television screens. A lofty claim, sure, but one that doesn’t feel risky. If the Oculus Rift was a religion, evangelism would be a piece of cake. Just have someone try on the thing and you have a new convert. So, what is it about the Oculus Rift that almost entirely avoids criticism from those who have tried it? Let’s start with a bit of history.

So-called “virtual reality” headsets have been around for years, and all of them suffer from a glaring problem: Instead of being surrounded by the screen, older headsets made it appear as though you were sitting in a dark theater, staring at a floating screen. But the Oculus Rift team has increased the field of view. Instead of sitting in the back of the theater, you’re now in the action, with the screen seemingly wrapped around you and filling your peripheral vision. Combine this with stereoscopic 3-D, and the Oculus team has cooked up a recipe for immersion that will only be beat by future iterations of the device. Also, for the first time in history, this level of technological immersion will be available at an affordable price (the Oculus team is targeting a $200 - $300 price point for the consumer model).

Now, the Rift’s hardware isn’t perfect — nor is it supposed to be — as the unit I tried was intended for game developers, enabling them to create content to run on the Rift. This is made obvious in the device’s screen. High-resolution displays of such a small size are extremely hard to purchase in bulk — unless you’re Apple or Samsung — and the Oculus team had to forego HD in the Rift developer units in order to send them out in a timely matter. The consumer version, due out in 2014, has been all-but-guaranteed to sport at least a 1080p display. For now, the low resolution is annoying, but not experience-breaking. Instead of looking through a glass window into the virtual world, it’s like you’re looking at the world through a beekeeping or fencing mask, as the screen’s pixels lack the desired density. Further anticipated improvements on the developer kit include a lighter unit, lower latency and increased head-tracking capabilities.

Even with plenty of room for improvement before the Rift hits shelves, the current hardware is still awe-inspiring. The headtracking enables you to physically look upward and take in an environment’s ceiling, or stare down at your feet and realize that you’re now much fatter and carrying a gatling gun. While shooting straight ahead at a target, you can look over your shoulder to ensure an enemy isn’t sneaking up on you.


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