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Digital Foundry

Digital Foundry: Hands-on with Oculus Rift

Digital Foundry: Hands-on with Oculus Rift

Mon 29 Apr 2013 7:20am GMT / 3:20am EDT / 12:20am PDT
HardwareDigital FoundryDevelopment

Exciting new display technology or the beginning of a revolution in gaming?

Now we get it. Now we know why the media is so excited by the next generation of virtual reality, and beguiled by Palmer Luckey's Oculus Rift head-mounted display in particular. Don a ready-calibrated unit, dive into a specially prepared demo and the next ten minutes of your life could well redefine your expectations of the next era of gaming.

The Rift isn't perfect - resolution in particular is a genuine issue - but at its best, it offers true immersion on a level you've never experienced before, and the sheer potential offered by the system is simply irresistible. After your first experience in the Rift, every first-person perspective game you play from then on will be couched in terms of how it would "feel" played in VR. By moving beyond the flat, 2D confines of current display technology, the Oculus headset does indeed go some way to living up to its billing, of allowing players to "step into the game". But beyond the media demos, does the experience actually hold up for extended play? Is VR truly a viable new way to experience gaming?

Thousands of gamers obviously hope so. Oculus Rift caught the imagination of Kickstarter backers like no other piece of hardware before, raising $2.4m from 9522 contributors, around 7000 of whom laid down over $300 in order to get their hands on pre-release development hardware - not bad when Rift creator Palmer Luckey was aiming for a mere $250,000 in crowd-funded investment. In the days before and after the Kickstarter appeal, Luckey surrounded himself with a high-profile team looking to bring the Rift to market, attracting a further $2.5m of investment funds. The results of that investment are finally starting to appear in the form of complete development kits, now in the process of shipping to all Kickstarter backers. A thousand Rifts were rushed to the UK via DHL last week (Oculus is now in the process of setting up a proper UK fulfilment centre), and Digital Foundry's unit was one of them.

Once freed from its carton, the Rift package itself is genuinely impressive - a world away from the gaffer-taped assemblage of components first seen in the now legendary John Carmack demos. The imposing, robust plastic travel case houses the head-mounted display itself, its break-out box, and a multi-voltage power supply with exchangeable plugs that should allow the Rift to operate almost anywhere in the world. USB, DVI and HDMI cables are included (there's even an HDMI to DVI adaptor), along with two additional sets of lenses, making for three in total. Everything has its place in the Rift carry-case, with separate compartments cut into the foam insert for all major components. The overall impression you take away from the package is that it could take some severe punishment without the precious equipment inside taking any damage.

The Rift itself is made from durable plastic, with a heavy duty adjustable fabric headband that keeps the HMD securely in place, and a foam insert to protect your face from the harsh materials of the headset. Inside the visor we find two lenses designed to warp the LCD imagery around your eyeballs, convincingly simulating peripheral vision in supported games. Twisting these lenses loosens them from the sockets, allowing them to be easily replaced with alternatives for those with less than perfect vision. However, we'd recommend that wearers of glasses try to use them in concert with the standard lenses, or even switch to contacts. The optional lenses are OK, but Oculus can't be expected to provide optics to match everyone's individual prescriptions.

Once the HMD is in place, it's quite remarkable just how light and comfortable it is - especially if you've used the larger, more cumbersome Sony HMZ-T1 3D viewer in the past. Yes, remarkably, Palmer Luckey's start-up outfit has managed to create a more comfortable 3D viewer than Sony - on its first attempt.

Motion sensors are housed behind the screen in the Rift itself, with a single cable snaking out of the HMD, in turn leading to the Oculus break-out box. Here we see HDMI and DVI inputs, along with a 5v power socket and a standard USB connection to your PC. The Rift uses existing USB HID protocols, like those used for keyboards and mice, so you don't even need to install a driver to get it up and running. Ideally you should set up the PC to output the 1280x800 native resolution of the Rift itself, but you can feed it higher 16:10 resolutions, as the break-out box downscales nicely (but expect a little additional latency for doing so). It's also worth cloning the output of your GPU to a secondary monitor so you can keep track of what's going on when your PC isn't displaying a VR output. We'd recommend setting the Rift as the primary display though - GPUs tend to lock to the v-sync of the first screen, and as display refreshes rarely match, sometimes you're left with screen-tear on the other - far better to have that on your monitor than on the Rift output.

Team Fortress 2: the VR experience

While there's no Doom 3: BFG Edition support for the Rift after all, there's still one title out there with full Rift support: Valve's Team Fortress 2. Adding a "-vr" suffix to the launch command line kicks in the stereo output, and there's a wealth of developer console commands to work with, including a bespoke VR calibration mode that adjusts the 3D effect. There's also a selection of eight different control methods.

This might sound like a big deal, but in reality they are all variations on the same theme; standard mouse-look is replaced with VR motion tracking, and the options are typically reserved for variations in how weapons are aimed, and to what extent they are "unlocked" from mouse-look/head-tracking. The default option is the best - the target reticule stays on-screen at all times (so effectively, the view weapon tracks towards where you are looking) but the mouse itself is used to point your gun wherever you want within your line of sight. Dragging the mouse beyond that overrides the tracking, so mouse-look still works in a conventional manner to a certain extent.

Team Fortress 2 on the Rift - with a twist. Virtuix's 'Omni' treadmill aims to turn VR gaming into a true Holodeck-style experience.

It's easy to use, it's intuitive, but it's not going to make you a better player - it's simply a neat application of VR and more fully immerses you into the environment. It's compelling to use the head-tracking to look around, and even to look at your own character model more closely, but actual gameplay applications turn out to be rather limited. It's just... well, cool. What you do get is a decent workout for the technology itself though - environments now have genuine scale and field of view is immense enough that you have genuine peripheral vision. Perhaps the most impressive element is the implementation of stereoscopic 3D - everything just works and looks natural, with very little of the "diorama" effect we've previously seen on 3DTVs, where objects are arranged by depth but don't seem to have actual depth themselves. Particles in particular, from gunfire to ricochets to debris, simply look wonderful.

But outside of Oculus's demos, the limitations of the system come sharply into focus - literally. The Rift utilises the same 7-inch 1280x800 screen found in the Google Nexus 7 tablet, but claims of 640x800 resolution per eye need to be put into context. That may well be what is being rendered internally, but once the image is warped and sent out to the Rift, effective resolution is being lowered already, and an additional degree of that detail level is used to render your peripheral vision - so the actual amount of real estate dedicated to your main gameplay view is very, very low. Here's a screenshot with a rough estimate of how much detail is actually being resolved in your main line of sight when peering through the visor.

The effect is somewhat akin to playing games standing in front of a stadium Jumbotron - pixels are colossal, and resolution is low to the point where almost all of the text in Team Fortress 2 is completely unreadable. As a consequence, there is clear and obvious motion blur from the LCD too, though this was less of an issue than we thought it would be.

Oculus is looking to implement a 1080p screen for the consumer unit (Oculus COO Laird Malamed told us that the 5-inch screen in the Samsung Galaxy S4 is well-liked by Palmer Luckey), and while this will clearly help a great deal, a 2x increase in resolution is still going to look nowhere near as detailed as standard HDTV image. Even with a higher resolution display, we're still going to be looking at comparatively huge pixels and perhaps something approaching a perceptual 480p image.

The next challenge is entirely personal to each individual gamer. Even with careful display calibration, your first foray into the world of VR gaming is likely to end within 10-15 minutes by an increasing feeling of nausea, scaling up to the point where you really need to remove the HMD. You can't really call it motion sickness, because you're not moving, but the point is that you think you are, with the disconnect building to the point where users genuinely don't feel very well. Perhaps you'll be tempted to dismiss this as something that only happens to other people, but it's worth pointing out that this reporter has been gaming for 33 years with no ill effects - until Oculus Rift came along. The virtual reality effect is so profound and overwhelming that you'll need time to adjust; Oculus itself refers to it as a case of "finding your VR legs" and says that you acclimatise over time, but in the short-term, you should stick to 10-minute bouts of gaming followed by a break. Really.

What happened to Doom 3 BFG?

doom

Despite talking one-on-one with an Oculus staff member about the VR version of Doom 3 BFG Edition, we're still not really any the wiser about what really happened with Rift support for Carmack's pet project that wowed so many people at E3 last year.

As we understand it, official support may happen in the future, but there are absolutely no guarantees. For whatever reason, Oculus lost its tentpole game after its Kickstarter finished, seeking to head off potential customer relations issues by offering $25 of store credit or $20 of Steam funds instead, along with the option of a full refund (apparently a few hundred people did indeed ask for their cash back). Oculus did its best to keep customers happy but the current Doom 3 no-show is definitely a shame.

Luckily for the fledgling company - and indeed eager VR gamers - Valve stepped in with full-blooded Rift support for Team Fortress 2, meaning that the Kickstarter backers do get a really good game to play with their new piece of kit once it arrives - and it's already free, of course.

The Hawken demo

Currently unavailable to Rift owners, we were fortunate enough to get some hands-on time with the GDC Hawken demo in a private Oculus demonstration earlier this week. The demo itself isn't particularly compelling in terms of the gameplay - it's a simple mech-based bot match and nothing more - but the VR experience is intriguing on a number of levels.

First of all, there's the sensation of being inside the mech itself - motion tracking allows you to look around the interior of the cockpit, and get a closer look at your arm-mounted machine guns and rocket launchers just by turning your head and looking at them. What's curious here is that we're seeing a very proper approach to 3D to the point where you need to adjust your focus to concentrate on what's close to you, with the main view naturally blurring - an actual, natural depth-of-field effect, if you like. Also interesting is that you get a genuine sense of height to the mech cabin as you stomp around the cityscape, which you don't really "feel" to anything like the same degree in the normal 2D mode.

Perhaps the most impressive sensation of all is the sheer height of the environments. The Oculus demo has debug mode enabled, allowing your mech to boost up into the sky with no limits. Hopping from rooftop to rooftop is interesting enough and plenty of fun, but there's an eerily convincing sense of vertigo as you look down on the ground far below, and a genuine mini-rush as you leap over the edge and plummet down to terra firma. Good stuff.

On a more mundane technical level, another key takeaway from this demo is the need for high-end anti-aliasing. Here, it wasn't enabled to any great degree, giving an ultra-jaggy element to edges that wasn't particularly pleasing to the eye - a side-effect of the giant pixels. Team Fortress 2 supports up to 16x CSAA on Nvidia hardware and it made a big, big difference to the overall quality of the presentation.

Skyrim, Half-Life 2, Mirror's Edge and more - the third party hacks

You've probably seen a bunch of "see Game X running on Oculus Rift" news stories floating about recently, where fan favourites have Rift functionality grafted on via the Vireio Perception open source 3D driver. In essence, it's a Direct3D override hack that performs the necessary 3D separation and perspective warping to introduce Rift functionality into existing games. Initial versions of the hack didn't support the Rift's internal motion sensor, but recent betas have addressed that, allowing for something approaching full functionality - albeit with some limitations. Take Half-Life 2 for example - head-tracking is tied entirely to mouse-look, so there's no separation of the weapon from where you're looking - it's at this point where you can begin to appreciate the amount of work that's gone into the various Team Fortress 2 control implementations.

Because the Vireio driver is essentially hooking its way into DirectX, it isn't always as effective as you might hope; for example, Skyrim's shadows have no stereo effect meaning you need to turn them off in order to preserve the integrity of the 3D image. Field of view often needs to be adjusted via console commands or .ini hacks in order to get something approaching a decent image. Interfaces and HUDs are also a problem, and it's not just about text size either - standard form is to move these elements into the corners of the screen on a conventional 2D screen. On the Rift, this transplants them deep into your peripheral vision, making them impossible to use. On top of that there are still some frustrating calibration issues (an in-built tool is supplied, but we had mixed fortunes with it) and it requires some degree of work to get good results.

Oculus Rift enthusiasts have been eager to embrace the third-party hacks and to share their experiences on YouTube. Mirror's Edge is a game that seems tailor-made for the kind of experience the Rift supplies.

Generally speaking, games using the Source engine (Left 4 Dead, Dear Esther, Half-Life 2) appear to work rather well, while almost every other game had issues that detracted from the experience to varying degrees. However, bearing in mind that we're just a few weeks away from launch, the amount of progress that the open source community has made here is frankly superb.

The good news is that it all comes with the blessing of Oculus VR itself. Palmer Luckey's vision was always to get the hardware out there and then watch what the community does with it - similar to the way that Kinect was embraced so enthusiastically (albeit fleetingly) by legions of enthusiasts. Oculus calls this phenomenon "crowd-lifting" and the thinking behind it is remarkably straightforward: the more concepts and "hacks" that become available, the more exposure the Rift gets, and the more likely it is to become a genuine success story once it's released to retail.

Oculus Rift Developer Kit - the Digital Foundry verdict

Oculus VR has been completely up front and honest about this product: it's a developer kit aimed at games makers, it's not representative of the final consumer device, and it will be significantly improved for its true "gen one" retail release. But at the same time, the media frenzy surrounding the Rift has clearly brought about plenty of buy-in from gamers who want to experience this new frontier in gameplay as soon as possible. With games available now and the Rift still available for pre-order on the Oculus VR website to anyone who wants one, the question is whether the current hardware is worth its $300 asking price. In truth, we would have to say that the answer is no - certainly right now, it's just too early.

"The Rift is just the beginning of the VR journey. The next big challenge is a new control interface worthy of the immersion Oculus' technology provides."

That's not to say that the Rift isn't a cool piece of kit, because it's a landmark achievement. It's forerunner hardware that represents a new way to play games - offering up a genuine IMAX sense of "being there" in the game world that we've never experienced before. The low-latency head-tracking is key to its success. It could be improved but even in its current state, it's ready for show-time. Stereo 3D - something which developers have grappled with for years now - just works without feeling forced or unnatural, an achievement that's all too easy to ignore. But for all the Rift's successes, you can't escape the fact that this is prototype hardware in need of major software support - not to mention hardware upgrades that will most likely render the current model obsolete.

What's missing right now won't come as any kind of surprise to the Oculus team. We really need a device-level calibration tool that's quick and easy to use, that persists across games with support for saved presets for different players. Proper calibration is essential for lessening the inevitable nausea and getting your "VR legs" - dealing with it right now is a time-consuming, often frustrating experience. The tracking works well as far as it goes but there's a glaring omission: the world is so immersive you want to peer more closely at things, but you can't. When you're startled and you jerk your head back, you want that to be represented in-game but it isn't - the takeaway here is that we need an additional dimension to the tracking to complete the package.

But, obviously, it's the resolution that's the real deal-breaker. 640x800 per eye might sound like a reasonable amount of resolution on paper, but the impression you get while gaming is something much, much lower, meaning giant pixels and very poor resolution. Oculus wants to shift to a 1080p screen for its consumer product, but based on the results from this 1280x800 display, even a 2x boost in pixel depth will probably still look noticeably rougher than a current-gen console game.

The Oculus team knows all of this, of course, and you can be sure that there will be solutions to most of these issues in the initial consumer product, but even then, there are larger, more fundamental challenges on the horizon. Developers need to figure out what they actually want to achieve with this technology: while replacing mouse-look with head-tracking is extremely cool, the novelty does wear off quite quickly. A new way of gaming requires an innovative approach that really puts VR through its paces, and we're unsure to what extent grafting on support to existing games will work: long-time Team Fortress 2 players who try out the Rift will doubtless move back to their 2D monitors before too long because as fun as it is, the game mechanics simply work better that way.

Our other concern is one of control. Oculus Rift offers the potential for complete gaming immersion, but what it doesn't offer is any way to better interact with the world it so vividly brings to life. Mouse, keyboard, and even joypad - these are control interfaces designed for another era, keeping you one or two stages removed from the world you are immersed in, leading to an oddly detached experience. You want to reach out and touch things, and interact in a more intuitive manner - but you can't. So what's the future here - Leap Motion finger tracking? Some kind of PlayStation Move-style controller? Minority Report gloves? The truth is that we don't know, we're in uncharted territory and right now we have no idea how it will evolve. For all its drawbacks, the Rift makes a powerful statement about the future of virtual reality, but even with the dev kit's major issues addressed, we're still a long, long way off from an experience that lives up to the raw potential.

10 Comments

Patrick Williams
Medicine and Research

93 61 0.7
The razer hydra is a PS move-like PC add on that could be interesting. The article makes a good point regarding what players will do once they have one and not be used by the multiplayer crowd.

Posted:A year ago

#1
It seems we are on a cusp of vr mainstream, one word of caution has to be with all the limitations of the Oculus SDK, will the vr drive be in or out of home driven?

Posted:A year ago

#2

Bill Young
head of strategic partnerships

9 3 0.3
Next stop: the O.A.S.I.S.

Posted:A year ago

#3
@Bill, yes I am just finishing reading "Ready Player One"!

Posted:A year ago

#4

Saehoon Lee
Founder & CEO

60 41 0.7
I have tried Rift and it was working for me until I started to move around using my game pad. I was just fine looking around using Rift, but when I walked around using pad and then looking around at the same time, it gave me motion sickness.. Not sure what can improve that. Maybe that treadmill? Maybe you can make a next WiiFit? :D

Posted:A year ago

#5

James Benn
Studying Computer Science

12 15 1.3
@Saehoon Lee it takes a bit of getting used to. My first session lasted around 15 minutes before I felt nauseous. Now several days later and into my fifth session I can manage well over an hour comfortably.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Benn on 30th April 2013 1:59pm

Posted:A year ago

#6

Jose Martin
Entrepreneur & Financing - Media / Tech / Interactive Entertainment

23 19 0.8
I have to say that I was quite intrigued when I first read about the Rift...but after trying it, I definitley see it as purely a novelty. While it is pretty cool for a few mins, I found the low resolution jarring and bothersome at least for me, not being able to read text in-game was annoying and the motion sickness came on pretty strongly after about 15 minutes and kept building until I took it off....

Could someone get over at least the motion sickness drawback after using it consistently over a period of a few weeks? Perhaps, but how many people are going to want to try? I know I wasn't eager to get dizzy and nauseous again anytime soon and I certainly am not eager to part with a few hundred dollars, hoping I might be able to use this thing at some point in the future for more than 15 or 20 mins without tossing my cookies.

Other than that, any game that requires the use of more than WSAD on the keyboard is going to be a problem too, you aren't going to keep pulling off the googles everytime you need to get your bearings on control keys.

As a hardcore gamer for 30 years, I just don't see this catching on with any moderate percentage of the core gaming community...I know most 3rd party peripherals aren't adopted by a majority of gamers anyway but I think this will have a particularly small niche market appeal at best until/if the experience can be significantly upgraded and widespread game support comes online as the article states.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jose Martin on 30th April 2013 2:17pm

Posted:A year ago

#7

Tim Carter
Designer - Writer - Producer

554 270 0.5
I remember the virtual reality gimmick back in the mid-nineties.

Here's something to think about? Back in the nineties, the graphics for straight 3D gaming AND for VR were very poor. People flocked in droves to 3D gaming. VR gaming... meh...

Do you really think it will be any different this time around. "Wow! I'm playing TF2 in VR. But wait... It's still the same TF2." (Yawn.)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 30th April 2013 4:14pm

Posted:A year ago

#8

Greg Wilcox
Creator, Destroy All Fanboys!

2,148 1,061 0.5
Hmmmm. The main problem I have with this (other than the low resolution, headaches/motion sickness and annoying bit about no one currently making a NEW game to launch with the thing as opposed to rigging old games to work with it - sort of) is nearly everyone looks down at some point when gaming at their controller or mouse/keyboard, even if for a second or two.

Unless we see a game made for the hardware that offers a non-controller experience (which would be an interesting challenge), I can see some people blown away now being less in love in games where you get multiple control schemes and need to switc between them

The thing NEEDS some sort of built in option where it can recognize controllers of all types and allow players to pause by a button press or perhaps by looking down and holding that position until a controller map comes up that lets them customize buttons/keys and shows them real-time results on some sort of GUI as they reconfigure/recalibrate. And yes, it needs to remember/recall settings for different games. Making this a total no-brainer product will help it more than people gushing about "potential" at the end of the day...

You're welcome, Oculus Rift design team.

Posted:A year ago

#9
The plan of shipping 15,000+ SDK systems and hoping a great game gets ported/made is a interesting "cast thy seeds" approach to game development, for a tricky new architecture (KINECT did a similar approach).

My issue (and also my bias) is that the consumer RIFT - even in the best conditions - is some three years away from being available (development of high-res screen, form-factor of new HMD, agreement on tracking and audio components, licensed production, fab, marketing, investment, release). What has happened is the the hype of second-time-VR has caught the imagination of an audience waiting for the Gen-8 console promises, and have run with it.

I would propose that we could deploy this proposed hardware (with only a need for a better screen) quicker to the audience through an Out-of-Home entertainment approach - kind of how films promote and feed DVD sales. And like the movie to home analogy, where the film industry deploys 3D, the consumer sector is prepared for a scaled-down approach (or no 3D in most cases), the Out-of-Home version would help introduce the in-home VR system!

The problem with this idea is the hijacking of second-time-VR promotion by the media and some executives - any idea that this would be first screened in a new kind of arcade environment causes convulsions - as having created this monster of consumer game publicity, the collapsing sales and player apathy foretelling a possible 2014-collapse dose not want to think of anything that dose not promote consumer gaming to the masses. I have even seen some media report that the RIFT could work on the PS4 - even knowing that the hardware is under-spec'ed to the PC dev kits needed just to run the RIFT SDK!!

Posted:A year ago

#10

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