Oculus Rift first impressions

The timestamp on this blog entry tells me that I started this post on the 29th of May. I’m going to leave it there for posterity, but in reality I’m tapping the keys on the 24th of June instead, almost a month later. I preordered an Oculus Rift CV1 for myself on launch day, after spending quite a bit of time over the last couple of years with the DK1 and DK2 at work. I was never a great fan of the experience with the DK1 and DK2 due to the limitations of the hardware, but I promised myself a CV1 when they came out, to get to know VR as a proper consumer.

I’ve never been under any illusions that the experience would be perfect, or even close to it as far as I’m concerned, since I know the technology doesn’t exist for that yet, but I’ve always wanted to get my feet wet with the first wave of what the industry classes as the first consumer kits, in my own time and after spending the same amount of money as every one else. It’s easier to overlook things if you have no skin in the game.

So after waiting patiently for my order to be processed, it showed up one day pretty much unexpected. I’ve always known it was on its way, but in the time between ordering and the money disappearing out of my account and it showing up a day later, I’d actually talked myself out of wanting it a small handful of times. After reading about other people’s experiences with the CV1, and the HTC Vive, I’d mostly written off this first wave of hardware and decided that another generation was needed to get closer to what I really wanted out of VR, especially VR gaming.

The cost was a factor. Not just the Rift itself, although at £499 it’s not exactly an impulse purchase. More the cost of the rest of the PC you need to get to the minimum specification that Oculus (and Valve) really want to you to have, so that game developers can expect a certain minimum level of performance, especially for the GPU. I’m still not there in that respect, the CPU in my PC lagging behind according to Oculus' system checker thing. Which brings me to my first gripe.

The checker doesn’t actually check performance. It just checks the model names of some components and enumerates the number of USB ports you have. I applaud the minimum specification push, but I don’t applaud the marginalisation of perfectly good hardware in the name of that. My CPU has at least as much minimum (raw) performance as the Core i5-4590 they ask for, it’s just a generation older in Intel’s product line.

Which is fine, you can ignore the constant unending warning in Oculus Home that your PC isn’t good enough and play the games anyway, it’s just not the right way to handle that particular facet of system compatibility and minimum performance. With the “will it even work with my computer” problem squared away, what about actually using it?

The unboxing and setup experience was mostly great, from the physical packaging it all comes in, to the software setup to get it all working, setup with you and your room in mind, and rendering the first VR experiences inside Oculus Dreamdeck, the application that houses all of the demo content that you first try.

CV1 is comfortable, at least for me, although the shape of the back of my head means that the design for the head strapping doesn’t quite fit me perfectly. It holds the CV1 to my head well though so no actual complaints can be registered. There’s a built in headset for audio, and the stems that bring the speaker part down to your ears are around half an inch too short to get the centres of the drivers over my main ear hole. I can still hear the sound just fine, but it lets in quite a lot of ambient noise. Which is fine, you still need to be aware of your surroundings when you’re in a virtual experience, which includes hearing joking brothers sneaking up next to you while you can’t see them, or the dog barking because it got stuck in the bathroom again. I’ll leave it up to you, dear reader, to decide if either or both of those things have happened to me while wearing the Rift.

What about playing games and experiencing other virtual reality content? I’ve had a mixed experience there, most of which I can probably lay at the feet of something in the stack between my PC and Windows, and the Rift. Sometimes the Rift just won’t come out of standby, or it’ll lose the USB connection to one of the three USB things you need to plug in: the headset, the position sensor, and the Xbox One wireless controller receiver. That involves either a full reboot, if the Rift won’t wake up, or a dance under the desk to unplug and re-plug the USB device that’s no longer being recognised. That happens frequently enough to be annoying, and I haven’t been able to diagnose it yet, or find a fix from my limited research online. This was after hours of frustration that SteamVR wouldn’t show anything on the Rift, until I rebooted the PC out of frustration and it just worked. Years of the Mac being my primary computer have conditioned me that a reboot shouldn’t be the solution to problems like that.

There’s a pain point when you need to interact with the computer in a way where the output isn’t being displayed on the Rift. You either have to take the headset off, or tilt your head back and peer awkwardly through the gap by your nose, to find the mouse and keyboard on your desk and provide input. If you take the headset off, you then have to put it back on, which is a problem for me at least.

It might be because I haven’t set it up properly, but I have the best visual quality from the system when it’s pressed quite tight to my face, bringing the screens closest to my eyes. The combination of the display technology, lenses, lens positioning hardware and the entire assembly of the Rift, while wearing it, offer a less than perfect visual system at the best of times. To minimise the artefacts, of which there are many, requires fiddling every time I want to wear it. The lens distance slider doesn’t hold fast for me (or at least the sensor tracking its apparent position, and thus the lens distance from my eyes) and drifts slightly over time, I guess with movement. So I need to potentially adjust it and position the Rift properly on my face every time I take it off and put it back on.

That means I instinctively want to minimise the amount of times I take it off, so I do the nose peering thing instead, to use my computer in between VR experiences. That’s bad, but it’s better than the adjustment dance every time.

Back to the visual problems, the clearest one (pun definitely intended) is the lack of resolution on the displays. My own personal visual system, and I know it’s different for everyone that tries it, can see the subpixel boundaries of the display in normal use no matter what’s being displayed. So I get the well documented screen door effect, as the subpixels stay fixed in their position in front of your eyes, but the position of the content in the virtual world changes as you move your head, causing the subpixel grid to appear to slide over the top of the content as if you’re looking through, you guessed it, a screen door.

On top of that, there’s the crepuscular rays, which I believe are mostly an artefact of the lens construction, although I admit to not knowing nearly enough about how they’re perceived to be sure. They’re completely content dependent, so they’re not there all the time, but there’s no apparently way for me to control the brightness of the displays (I guess because that would negatively affect their calibration) and thus the intensity of the effect when it is visible.

Then there’s the problem of mapping rendered content to the display in the most optimum way, given the limitations of the entire display system as a whole. I know it’s a very hard problem to solve on a system where you don’t tightly control the hardware involved, but being offered resolution choices and rendering quality options in games when using them on the Rift, where the developer has explicitly decided to support it to boot, feels wrong. The game developer should tell me what’s best, because the fine tuning of renderer parameters is horribly annoying at the best of times, but desperately so while wearing a virtual reality headset.

If you’ve got this far, you might be forgiven for thinking that the entire experience sucks and isn’t worth it. The hardware is nowhere near perfect, it’s fiddly, the software is suboptimal, the whole experience because it’s all happening on and being driven by a PC is pretty crap, and it’s expensive on top of that. However the overall experiences you get, versus traditional gaming where you’re sat in a room, surrounded by real life while you try and get immersed in a video game being displayed on a TV or monitor that’s nowhere near to filling your field of vision, and doesn’t track your movement, is where the magic is.

It’s miles away from being perfect. But it’s miles past the point of being great. The immersion you get, and especially for me in games where you’re in a cockpit of some kind, be it a car or a space ship, fixed in a chair but with the ability to look around, is streets ahead of anything a traditional experience can offer you. It’s that which you’re investing in today if you get a Rift or a Vive or something else similar. The experience is completely compromised at a basic level, yet it’s still more than worth experiencing, even at this almost prototypical stage. To have denied myself these experiences while the technology grows up would have been a real mistake.

So while it’s clunky and often looks like shit, and running it all from a Windows PC is a special form of torture I thought I’d left behind on my journey to using a Mac as my main computer system, the overall experience is something I can’t stop coming back to. I dream about jumping into VR experiences. I find myself daydreaming about cars a lot. I used to daydreaming about really driving them. Now I daydream about getting home, strapping on the Rift and going racing virtually. That’s infinitely better than dreaming about driving the real thing because I can actually do it. That’s the most profound thing for me, really.

It doesn’t matter that it’s all just a bit crap, honestly, if you think about it from the position of the raw hardware and technology. It doesn’t matter, because the overall experience as a human being, with all of the sensory input while being drawn into an environment with almost complete lock out of your normal one, so it has to try harder to distract you and break the illusion the game or VR experience is trying to give you, is magical.

If you’ve got the time, money and patience, I highly recommend giving today’s first consumer VR systems a try.