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Oculus Rift review: It felt like ski goggles with a smartphone glued to the glass

Andrew Walker asks if the new Oculus Rift can give virtual reality the consumer success that eluded it in the past

Arguably the most anticipated new gadget of the decade so far is the Oculus Rift, the oddly named, crowd-funded Virtual Reality (VR) headset.

It’s just started appearing in game development studios and is destined to hit the high street in 2014, priced around $300 in the US. They’re in desperately short supply but getting rave reviews and tipped by industry gurus to make VR the next big thing in home entertainment. 

The buzz surrounding Oculus Rift is huge but so was the hype about Virtual Reality thirty years ago.

Back in the 1980s, despite movies like Lawnmower Man feeding our imaginations, Virtual Reality failed to become consumer reality. So will anyone except die-hard geeks believe the hype and strap on a headset now? 

I tested an ‘Rift at Inition, a Shoreditch-based 3D technology studio, to see what all the fuss is about.

At about 0.4 Kg, the version I tried felt like ski goggles with a smartphone glued to the glass, more comfortable than the bulky headgear of yesteryear. The technicians positioned me on a narrow stage with a fan-powered breeze and the demo began.

They explained that the graphics I was seeing were blocky and not representative of the headset’s high resolution onboard capabilities, but I wasn’t listening because I was preoccupied with balancing between two virtual buildings on a virtual plank, experiencing a nasty dose of vertigo. 

The surfaces around me didn’t look real, but the sense of space felt real - like standing on an unrealistic real plank between two unrealistic real buildings, really high up.

The boffins say this particular Head Mounted Device (HMD) has made huge improvements in Field of Vision (FOV) and fast pixel switching, combined with ultra-low latency head tracking using Oculus’s own 1000Hz Adjacent Reality Tracker with 3-axis gyros, accelerometers and magnetometers. 

In plain English that means you can’t see the edges of the screen and each eye receives a different, sharply focused image that creates the impression of seamless real motion when you look around.

The upshot is this latest generation of VR kit partially tricks your brain into believing your eyes, stimulating the primitive parts of the brain that release dopamine and adrenaline more than looking at a normal screen does. 

That extra dose of neurochemical excitement is what makes the ‘Rift’s version of VR feel closer to a real experience than anything you’ve seen before, adding a new dimension to traditional game technology akin to adding sound to silent movies.

VR has come a long way from the blocky, tunnel vision headsets of the past, presenting a huge commercial opportunity to the games industry.  Just like the arrival of CDs boosted sales of new home entertainment hardware, so VR could boost the games hardware market, undoubtedly selling a lot more game titles when old favourites like Half Life and new blockbusters like Doom III launch ‘Rift compatible versions.

But there’s something more subtle happening too. 

The history of home computing is filled with intriguing concepts that were too underdeveloped to score a hit first time round but successfully re-emerged later on. Consider other tech flops of the ‘80s and ‘90s, like the Sinclair C5 electric tricycle, Oracle’s Network Computer and the Apple Newton PDA. 

Those concepts live on with varying degrees of success in the Segway, the Google Chromebook and the iPad. If advances in supporting technologies such as batteries, Wi-Fi, broadband, touch screens and miniaturised chips helped make those electric dreams come true, why not VR?

Considering it’s also actually very good, the Oculus Rift could give Virtual Reality the consumer success that eluded it in the past… provided they ditch the whole 'plank of terror' thing.