The Oculus Rift, the virtual-reality gaming headset that stole the show at last year's CES, is back again this year. A mass-market version isn't available yet, but Oculus VR is showing off its latest prototype, code-named Crystal Cove, adding a few key improvements, a higher-resolution screen, and some more immersive games. So, a bunch of us at CNET went over and slipped on Oculus goggles one more time…and the results, a year later, are impressive.
Oculus VR has been building momentum with US$75 million in new funding for the Rift and a year of game development from a variety of small and large-scale companies. The new headset has a more finished feel than a year ago, but it's far from what a final product will look like. The ski-goggle-like design fits snugly, but this time the outside's studded with little LEDs that add positional tracking, and the 1080p OLED display incorporates newer antiblur technology for better persistence of images. Basically, there's less lag, and hopefully less virtual-motion-induced nausea.
We tried two different demos: in the first, we sat down and looked at a large tabletop tower defense game full of turrets, grunting monster minions, and little corridors. Sitting on a virtual throne, I could lean over and poke my head around corners of the table, and get a closer look at any part of the elaborate game. This test of positional tracking showed how much better the Oculus Rift is getting at mapping precise head motions.
The outer LEDs on the Rift's goggles are picked up by a camera mounted under the TV display, and work like motion-capture dots. The Rift uses an IMU plus optical tracking for 6 degrees of freedom of motion, improved from 3 degrees previously. The final version of Oculus Rift may not have a camera or the LEDs, however; it depends. The final version, according to CEO Brendan Iribe, will have a similar solution or better.
(Credit: David Katzmaier/CNET)
The second demo placed us inside a starfighter cockpit for some dogfighting in Eve: Valkyrie, a game developed exclusively for the Oculus. I looked all around me and used an Xbox controller to simultaneously spin my ship in all directions hunting for enemies to fire missiles at. I whirled and spun as much as possible to try to induce nausea, but to the Crystal Cove prototype's credit I never felt that queasy. Last year, I felt disoriented just walking around a simple virtual town. The newest Oculus aims to eliminate motion smearing by blinking the display to black, much like blinking backlights in LCD TVs, and the final result is a lot less lag: 30 milliseconds, versus the original dev kit's 50 milliseconds. Oculus kits in the future will aim to do even better.
The 1080p OLED display, which according to Oculus VR is larger than a smartphone but smaller than a tablet, is split into two 960x1080-pixel-resolution halves, which are magnified when the goggles are put on. This means that even though it's a 1080p display you can see the pixel structure, and the new motion-blur reduction means these artifacts are easier to make out than before.
But, the 3D effect of the worlds created are rich and immersive regardless. Higher resolution, to 4K and even beyond, is the goal. According to Iribe, because of the magnified field of view, 12K to 16K display resolution is the ideal goal…which, in a head-mounted small display, we're not likely to get to anytime soon.
Here's the take-away: the Oculus Rift looks better than it ever looked, and controls better, too. So, if it was an amazing experience last year, it's a step better today.
Virtual worlds seem like they're getting a lot closer than ever before.