On Monday, after four years of hype, the Oculus Rift finally arrives as a consumer product — something you can actually use, easily, at home on your own computer. Really!
And you should want to try the Oculus Rift. Today is the day to identify your computer-inclined buddy and find out if they're getting an Oculus Rift.
Having spent a week in Oculus and Facebook's vision of virtual reality, I can say with certainty that this is something you need to experience for yourself. You may not like it. You may even get sick! But you absolutely must try the Oculus Rift. Love it or hate it, the Rift is capable of creating a unique and incredible experience unparalleled in modern times.
What's it like?
Using the Oculus Rift is a singular experience in current consumer technology. There is literally nothing else like it.
Forget that "mind-blowing" experience you had with the recent Google Cardboard / New York Times collaboration, or that Samsung Gear VR that came with your new Galaxy S7. That stuff is nowhere near what the Oculus Rift is capable of creating.
Unlike Google and Samsung's VR headsets, the Oculus Rift requires a bleeding edge computer to run; the PC that Oculus VR sent us costs about $1,500, but you could buy another model (or build your own) for much less.
Requiring a powerful computer is important: it means that the Rift is capable of far more complex and immersive virtual reality than anything else available.
It means that traveling to the far reaches of the Earth feels like actually traveling to the far reaches of the Earth. And it means that floating above the planet in a space suit in launch game "Adrift," with nothing other than the sound of your own breath, feels like you're actually Sandra Bullock in "Gravity".
When the headset is on, encompassing your entire vision, and the built-in headphones are covering both your ears, it feels unbelievably real. "I know I'm in a wooden chair in Brooklyn's lovely Windsor Terrace neighborhood, but that planet sure does look awfully large and real," is, in various permutations, what my brain spent much of this week rationalizing.
After one hours-long marathon session, the amount of data my brain was processing wore on me, and I got a tremendously bad headache.
Using the Oculus Rift can be overwhelming — it can be a sensory overload to binge on high-intensity VR. Surprise! Your brain probably isn't used to dealing with the kind of situations you'll experience in virtual reality. I'm no astronaut, and I'm certainly not trained for flying through the air at high speeds in fantastical environments. Yet I spent several hours doing just that in the delightful "Windlands" — maybe the best VR game available at launch on the Oculus Rift.
Make no mistake, though: the Oculus Rift is a video game device. This may seem strange considering that Facebook purchased Oculus VR for $2 billion, and Facebook isn't in the business of selling video game devices. That is no longer the case: Facebook is now in the video game business, even if Mark Zuckerberg thinks VR will one day evolve beyond that.
The Oculus Rift is a gaming device through and through, from the computer required to run it (a gaming PC, with no Apple support) to the software library it's launching with (mostly games, with only a handful of non-game/movie experiences and no streaming media). It comes with an Xbox One controller for Pete's sake.
Like so many consumer electronics devices before VR headsets, gaming is at the forefront of a burgeoning medium (see: computers, smartphones, headphones, 3D, etc.).
Corey Protin / Tech Insider
That's great for me, a person who plays loads of video games, but games are little more than an interesting hardware demo for the tens of millions of non-gamers out there. Thankfully, VR games are not traditional video games. There are traditional video games available for the Rift at launch, sure, but many games have the same affect that "Wii Sports" had on the world: gamer or not, you'll want to play games with an Oculus Rift.
Simply put: there's a huge difference between playing games on a television and playing them in virtual reality. You're there, in the game.
- You're there, floating above the Earth, desperately seeking oxygen in "Adrift".
- You're there, speeding down a racetrack from the driver's seat of a McClaren P1 in "Project Cars".
- You're there, flying a moon lander with the dazzling galaxy above you in "Firma".
- You're there, piloting a fighter craft through swarms of enemy aircraft in "EVE Valkyrie".
And that presence, to use the parlance of virtual reality marketing materials, makes all the difference. It makes VR unique, even while you're playing the same old video game tropes.
How does it feel? It feels like strapping a screen to your face.
Wearing a VR headset, no matter which way you cut it, is kind of uncomfortable. This applies to the Rift too, unfortunately.
The screen inside of it gets warm, because it's a screen drawing in a lot of electicity and heat. Stick your face an inch away from your HDTV and see how it feels.
The screen (screens in the case of the Rift) is literally strapped to your face, via three adjustable velcro straps. It's like wearing a baseball cap... that's hooked to your face. Even though the Oculus Rift is the lightest headset of any VR headset available or any coming in the near future, it's still, ya know, a thing that's strapped to your face. Sunglasses it is not.
Look at my (admittedly goofy) face after an hour or so of use:
Sarah Gilbert / Tech Insider
Adding to that, there's a relatively thick wire sticking out of the headset. It goes to the PC, which in turn powers the headset and pumps games into your field of view. You know what stinks? Long, heavy wires. Unfortunately, there's no getting around this — wireless connectivity isn't capable of delivering this experience (at least not affordably, and not yet).
As such, standing up and turning around while wearing the Rift is not a great idea. Even if you've got a clear, open space for using the Rift, I'd suggest against getting too mobile without supervision — lest you accidentally destroy your expensive computer or, worse, hurt yourself.
Oculus VR / Facebook
That said: the mild physical discomfort is beyond worth it for the experience the Rift provides.
In general, the headset is light and forgettable. That's a good thing in this case — you want to forget that you're wearing a headset. The whole idea is to convince your brain that you're somewhere other than where you really are: sitting in front of a computer, wearing a VR headset. And it succeeds at that goal, convincingly and often. I'd hear something behind me — in virtual reality — and instinctively turn to see it, as if it were real life. That's genuinely amazing, like nothing I've ever experienced in a game before.
Again, regardless of the discomfort, it works so well at providing a surreal, otherworldly experience that I'm okay with having tussled hair and the occasional face imprint.
Oculus VR / Facebook
The built-in headphones aren't studio quality, and they're not noise canceling. They're serviceable at best, and can be easily swapped for whatever headphones you'd prefer. I chose to keep them attached, as I don't want more than one thing tightened to my head at a given time, and found them sufficient. To each their own.
Perhaps most importantly, at some point during the review process I started taking intermittent breaks from VR. Until these headsets get lighter and less hot, you'll simply need to take a breather every now and again from the Rift. I found myself doing this not just for the sake of comfort, but to wipe down any fog that built up on the Rift's lenses.
Truth be told, even if it were completely weightless and emitted zero heat, the sensory overload is extreme enough that I'd suggest taking regular breaks anyway. VR is intense, man.
The best games I played in the Oculus Rift
There are 30 games, and a smattering of non-game, interactive experiences to check out in the Oculus Rift. That's just for right now, but it's a somewhat staggering amount of content for a medium that's barely off the ground.
For comparison, the PlayStation 4 launched with 23 games. The Xbox One launched with 22. The Nintendo 64 launched with two.
Like any game platform's launch line-up, there are a handful of standouts on the Oculus Rift.
"Windlands" is the best game currently available on the Oculus Rift. It may be the best experience I've had in virtual reality altogether (although there's this game where you're an eagle that's pretty great).
In "Windlands," you explore a gorgeous world that looks ripped from early 20th century Fauvism. More than just a pretty face, "Windlands" lets you soar through the air in a way that only a video game could. Your arms are grappling hooks, sent flying forward by looking in the direction you wish to go and squeezing a trigger on the Xbox One gamepad that comes with the Oculus Rift.
The feeling of soaring is truly magical. That is not hyperbole.
I have sensory memories based on playing "Windlands" that I recall in the same way I recall memories of visiting Coney Island for the first time. I've been to "Windlands." You should go, too. It's really great.
The closest I've been to feeling like Han Solo is while playing "EVE Valkyrie." There's something special about catapulting out of a carrier ship's hanger bay into the vastness of space. Every single time, I'm awed. Look at that planet down there! And while I'm looking, an enemy is locking on and causing alarms to ring in my ears, warning of impending doom.
"Valkyrie" is multiplayer only, and it's a complex game. You need to learn about countermeasures (a little gun that helps shoot away missiles) and a capacitor (how much battery your engine has before having to refill) and some other space jargon. Whatever — shooting down enemy fighters while flying around a space church is awesome and had me saying "another one" more than DJ Khaled. "Valkyrie" is almost certainly the prettiest game on the Rift, and the best one to put in a friend's hands who wants to try VR.
Hidden Path Entertainment
"Defense Grid 2" is such a video game. It's full of jargon and menus and systems. Images of the game are bound to have lasers and missiles in them, as seen above. Good grief.
What "Defense Grid 2" really is, though, is an amazing interactive strategy game. Playing it with a VR headset, you can physically look at each piece of the game up close. It's like you're looking down at an interactive board game rather than playing a game on a screen, and that's pretty incredible! It helps, of course, that the "Defense Grid" series is already a successful series without VR. I got lost in it for a few hours straight, and I'd happily jump back in for a few more hours right this minute.
If you've ever played any of the "Wipeout" games, you'll immediately identify with "Radial G." The long and short: it's the future and you're piloting a flying racecar of sorts along a track at high speeds. Unlike "Wipeout," you're in the cockpit and that's a huge difference. It's incredibly intense to fly down a futuristic highway at high speeds while your competition inches closer. You can literally look left and right to see them closing in. It's messed up. And a blast!
"Chronos" doesn't need to be in VR. You could just as easily play, and enjoy, "Chronos" on a PlayStation 4.
I'm not going to argue that it shouldn't be on Rift, because it's super rad to play on the Rift. Rather than seeing the world of "Chronos" from first-person perspective, you see it from the third-person. The camera — your head — is often placed in an interesting part of each area you're exploring, which adds to the game's dreary atmosphere. And make no mistake, this is a game about exploration and combat. Think of it like "The Legend of Zelda," but slightly more grown-up and significantly more difficult.
"Chronos" feels the most like a full-on, capital G game of any of the launch games I played.
What about non-game stuff?
Do you like short, animated VR movies? There are a few of those on the Rift storefront. How about 360-degree videos of art, music, journalism, and theater? There are a few of those as well, mostly in the Jaunt VR app.
Want to watch Paul McCartnery in concert as if you were sitting on stage with him?
Go for it!
That's about it for non-game VR stuff in the Oculus Store. More will assuredly come, no doubt, but it's barebones for now in terms of non-game VR content. No Netflix, no Hulu Plus, and no HBO Now.
Even more surprisingly, there's no social media of any form. You can't join your friend in a virtual space outside of multiplayer games. Not yet, anyway — those applications certainly exist, and we'll see which rise to the top sooner than later. For now, though, the Rift remains a dedicated gaming device first and foremost.
The biggest problem with the Rift is control
When you're in the Rift, you're in it. You can't see the world around you, or a person next to you. So when you put on the Rift and are handed an Xbox One controller, you'd better know the Xbox One controller inside and out. "Press A" doesn't mean much when you don't know which button A is.
There's a solution, of course: motion control.
Oculus VR is selling its Oculus Touch controllers at some point later this year. They stand in for hands, and they also have a bunch of buttons on them. Better yet, they're visually represented in games that use them — you either see them, a gun, or whatever else. It works far more intuitively than holding a gamepad.
For now, the main control method is the Xbox One controller that comes packed in with the Oculus Rift. For my money, it's the best gamepad that's ever been made, but it's nowhere near as intuitive as motion controls.
Heck, even motion controls are a step removed from just directly using your hands and having them tracked by a camera. The Rift, and VR in general, still has a long way to go with regards to control.
The future is here! Sort of! Kind of!
The unfortunate downside of creating an immersive experience from a visual and auditory perspective is that people then want to do all the other normal human being stuff, like touch and smell and taste. People want the holodeck from "Star Trek," basically. And how could you not!
We're still quite a ways off from that future, but the Rift is the first step in that direction.
Sure, the headset screen gets warm, and yes, you have to strap it to your face. In the ideal future of this stuff, you'll slip in a pair of contacts and be transported. Or how about neural implants? Contacts are so 3030. In 3031, neural implants are where it's at!
It's early days for VR, no doubt, but the launch of the Oculus Rift is a great big leap forward. It's a consumer-friendly vision of the future that's capable of wowing early adopting techno-junkies and anti-technologists alike. Your friend Janelle with the bleeding edge PC is going to be just as blown away as Grandma Irene — grandma may be even more impressed, honestly.
Between the price and the discomfort, I don't expect the Oculus Rift to become a household item in 2016. Oculus VR probably doesn't expect that either.
But by 2020, when the price comes down and it's lighter, more comfortable, and even easier to use? When you can watch DJ Khaled get lost on his jet ski at night in Snapchat from within your headset? Yeah, then the Rift — and VR in general — will be everywhere.
It's not a question of if, but when.