When I went in to try out the new Oculus Rift prototype ( codename: Crescent Bay), I thought I had a pretty good idea of what was in store for me. That’s how it feels wrong. I left the demo with a weak knee and was impressed as hell.
What I saw is the future of virtual reality. and a powerful sign of things to come. The prototype, which boasts higher resolution, low latency and 3D audio, is not a new dev kit like the DK2 It’s a functional prototype meant to give developers and the press a glimpse of where technology is heading.
Through a combination of luck and the habit of compulsively updating /r/oculus at any time, I was able to get a chance to try out the prototype in the very first available slot. The demonstrations lasted about fifteen minutes and took place in small booths built by Oculus, featuring a modernist gray-on-grey aesthetic reminiscent of Dr. Evil’s lair.
Oculus has shown the hardware before, but only to a limited audience at the Oculus Connect conference last year. This is the first opportunity the public had to look at it. Many of the demos were similar to what was being shown to developers on Oculus Connect, however there were some surprises in the store as well — and it looked like some of the demos had been polished or quirks added. Oculus was kind enough to let me record the process and you can watch my demo here:
For more detailed impressions and a rundown of each demo, read on!
I had a bit of a hard time putting the Rift over my (rather bulky) prescription glasses. The prototype was slightly stiffer (and apparently fragile) than the DK2, making it difficult to maneuver on your face if you wear glasses. That’s fine for a prototype, but I’m hoping that in the future Oculus will include a focus-focused watch face, just like with Gear VR, for those of us who have chosen vision as our dump characteristic.
While I was tinkering with the hardware, there was a slight light leak around the nose, which distracted me several times during the demo. On the positive side, the headset is light: very light. It seemed to me that it was empty. Once it was, it was the most comfortable VR headset I have ever worn.
When the hardware was turned on, I could see the screen well. The optics were good, and blurring at the edges of the field of view (quite noticeable on the DK1 and DK2) was largely gone. The field of view felt about the same as the DK2; maybe a little better. The resolution was definitely an improvement over the 1080p DK2, though not as much as I had hoped: you could still pick out individual pixels with some effort. I seriously doubt the resolution was greater than 2560×1440 — the Note 4 screen used by the Gear VR is a good bet, though there’s still no official word from Oculus. The screen door effect isn’t quite a thing of the past. However, the remaining level of pixelation is not distracting.
The built-in headphones really added a lot, especially in the soundproof booths where Oculus held demos. Dropping the headphones effectively cut off my last ground line to the outside world and I felt like I was being transported. The demonstration took place on a large square rug (about one and a half meters on the sides), which the attendant warned me to stay inside. I didn’t and the tracking held up perfectly. Thanks to the addition of tracking indicators on the back of the headset, I was able to turn freely without losing tracking. Throughout the demo, there was not a single positional tracking error, not a single dropped frame.
Oculus insists Rift is a seated experience, likely for legal and security reasons I had to sign a waiver to take the demo I made. However, the added immersion in the ability to stand and move freely cannot be overestimated. Using the Rift in a standing position with a wide positional tracking volume is a fundamentally different experience than sitting in a chair and being able to move no more than a few feet from side to side.
The quality of the demos themselves was also top notch. There are many good gaming experiences from Oculus Rift but it was the best I have ever tried.
Perhaps what struck me the most about the new prototype was its accuracy and low latency. DK2 tracking works, but there’s…intentionality. You find yourself moving a little more intentionally than usual because the delay introduces a subconscious disconnect between the movements of your head and the movements of the world. In the Crescent Bay prototype, this was practically non-existent. You move and the world is absolutely stable — a fundamental truth on which you can depend. Your head movements are smooth, light and thoughtless. It’s hard to convey, but the feeling of being surrounded by real things and standing in real places is overwhelming. The subconscious disconnect is gone or close to it.
I’m not particularly prone to simulation sickness, but there’s a slight uneasiness that I’m starting to notice after using DK2 for a while. In Crescent Bay this has completely disappeared. I left the demo feeling great.
The first demonstration took place aboard a submarine. The ceiling was high enough not to be claustrophobic, but there was a strong feeling of being cramped. A huge pipe hung in front of me. The lighting on everything looked great and I suspect it was based on the image. After a few moments, an ominous screeching sounded around me, allowing me to hear the shape of the room I was in. The room then slowly began to collapse under the pressure from above. Then it cut to black.
In the next demonstration, I found myself face to face with a dinosaur about six feet tall. His body was beautifully lit, he breathed slowly and looked at me. We stood together in the black void, vague particles hanging in the air around us. My face was inches from a mouthful of beautifully sculpted yellow teeth. I didn’t quite feel the inner dread that I would feel when faced with a real predator like a tiger or a bear, but there was something deeply unsettling about it.
The next demo was a delightfully low-poly scene with a small deer, a rabbit, and a fox rendered in a handful of polygons and fun pastels. The tree hung over my shoulder, and I felt that I could reach out and touch it. Very little happened, but it was a pleasant place. I would really like to go back there.
The next demo was the one I read about before. I was standing on the edge of a huge skyscraper, looking out over the steampunk gothic city. A huge Zeppelin hovered overhead. Behind me I could see a huge billboard of Palmer Lucky wearing a Rift Dev kit. Cars moved below me.
I never liked heights, and when I tried to move away from the edge of a building, I found that I really couldn’t.
The next demo took place in a room that looked like it was taken straight out of Bioshock — a cartoony, vaguely nightmarish living room with a large mirror against one wall. A bored cherub framed the glass and looked sternly at me. In the mirror, I could see my reflection as a disembodied head that was rapidly spinning through a variety of patterns, including a broken piece of marble bust (I think Socrates), an opera mask, a terracotta sun with a face in it, a balloon, and a small purple box with a nose hammer . The nose wiggled as I moved my face, which is both simple and very interesting.
The next demonstration took place on a large, frozen asteroid with a narrow horizon and a strangely colored sky. The ships were flying overhead and I could hear the Doppler effect as they moved, leaving trails of steam in the sky. Across from me, close enough to make me a little nervous, a gray alien with big eyes and compound fingers looked back at me. His eyes followed me, and as I moved, he turned to follow. After a moment, he waved. I returned the wave fully automatically.
The feeling of being in the same space with another person who is reacting to you is incredibly powerful. I wish I could spend more time and see how long it takes for the illusion to break.
The following demo was my favorite. I stood in the void, and a layer of thick fog penetrated through my chest (which, by the way, is inconvenient — the developers pay attention). In front of me was a small toy city, a few feet across, that looked almost exactly like it was made of paper. I could see a tiny paper fire raging in the building and tiny paper firefighters struggling to put it out. Paper clouds floated over the city. I could look through the paper window and see the little paper man floating in his room. I wish I had more time for this because it was all filled with details and I suspect I could spend an hour looking into it.
Clearly there’s a whole game you could make: tiny, VR, Sim City, and if no one does it, I’ll do it.
The next demo took on an almost Pixar-ish form. Skeet played the role of two huge orange industrial robots, a guide stand and a rubber duck. The demonstration began when a duck climbed onto a small platform out of the ground and the arms began to curve over it, swinging wide in my personal space and making me instinctively jump and hide. After one of them threw the duck into the distance, the conductor’s stand rose from the ground, and one of them picked up the baton and began to conduct an invisible orchestra.
A moment later, a twist: the baton is actually a magic wand. A moment later, and they are dueling, red and blue sparks (beautifully rendered in 3d) explode around me. Finally, one of the arms turned into a huge yellow duck ten feet high, and the other hugged her.
This demo was really fun and is a great proof of concept for virtual reality. The action was all around me and I never had a problem keeping track of what was going on.