Oculus Rift dev kits ready to bring virtual reality to the masses
Courtesy Kyle Orland, Ars Technica
Oculus VP of Product Nate Mitchell tries to guide me as I reach out for a controller I can’t see because of the Oculus Rift.
Technology company Oculus has been gradually shipping out final developer kits for its Kickstarter-funded Rift head-mounted display to more than 9,000 backers. While we haven’t been able to do extensive in-home testing yet, we did manage to get some hands-on time with the final developer unit at a recent event. Our first impressions suggest that this device easily sets a new high water mark for virtual reality, but it could still stand to see some improvements before it’s ready for consumers’ hands.
The shipping-ready developer unit I tried has come a long way since the prototype I first sampled at PAX East last year. For one thing, the Rift is now making use of a big 7-inch diagonal display, up from the 5.6-inch display found on prototypes. While the early units had a roughly 110 degree viewing range, the new display was enough to cover my entire field of vision, even when I shifted my eyes left or right to try to make out the edges of the view. The new display also provides smoother pixel switching than earlier demos did, resulting in less blurring and streaking when I moved my head about. I was told that there was about a 60 millisecond delay between an input and the resulting pixels on the demo running on an Nvidia 680 graphics card.
These improvements came at some expense to the weight of the unit, which is now 90 grams heavier than it was before the screen was expanded. Frankly, I didn’t find the added mass to be distracting. Putting the unit on felt comparable to donning a pair of sleek ski goggles. After a quick adjustment with some twistable knobs, I was able to get rid of an annoying nose pinch, and I found it quite easy to forget the unit was on my head at all.
The Oculus team was showing off a demo of Hawken, which was an inspired choice to highlight the Rift’s features. Hawken is a game in which your character is actually sitting in the seat of a giant mech, so it feels natural to be sitting in a seat and looking at a perspective from inside the cockpit. Even when the mech turns with the push of an analog stick, the cockpit housing stays fixed in relative space, providing a bit of a psychological anchor that prevents the nausea I felt playing Doom 3 on an earlier unit (the improved latency also likely helped on that score).
Enlarge / The final development unit (left) shown next to an early prototype (right).
Hawken also does a great job of showing off the incredible sense of stereoscopic depth you can get when playing the Rift. I usually have to close my eyes and blink away a headache after a few minutes of looking at a simulated 3D image on a screen, whether it’s shown with or without glasses. I didn’t have this problem with the Rift, though, possibly because each eye was actually getting a distinct, unfiltered image. There were none of the interference or flickering issues that often show up when using 3D glasses or pixel-grated LCD displays.
The result was an incredible sense of apparent distance between the surrounding cockpit and the buildings in the hazy distance. It only got more convincing thanks to the excellent head tracking, which refused to get confused no matter how fast or oddly I shook my head about. It all combined into an amazing sense of freedom and immersion when I flew into the air with a jet pack, and a strong sense of vertigo as I went into free fall and saw the ground rushing up to meet my feet.
Unfortunately, the Hawken demo also highlighted what’s currently the biggest problem with the Rift: resolution. The 1280×800 display sounds like it would be decent enough for a 7-inch screen. But when that display is sitting just a few inches from your face—and it’s split down the middle into separate images for both eyes—it doesn’t quite cut it. The short viewing distance makes it pretty easy to make out individual pixels, including the thin black lines that surround each one. People used to retina displays and high-def PC monitors will probably find everything just a bit muddy. This is more than a purely cosmetic concern, too; when I looked down at my cockpit in Hawken, the ammunition readout looked like a blurry, unreadable blob. When I took off the headset briefly and looked at the source image on the monitor in front of me, however, it was crystal clear.
Improving the resolution is one of the top priorities as Oculus continues to tweak the hardware from its current development kit to an eventual consumer version, Oculus VP of Product Nate Mitchell told Ars. "Resolution is at the top of my humble list, only because the Rift is all about a visually immersive experience," he said. "We’re trying to trick your brain purely with visuals that you’re in the game. The higher the resolution of the panel, the higher fidelity the visuals, the better everything’s going to look."
Mitchell compared the effect he was looking for to going from an original iPhone to one with a retina display that packs more pixels in the same space. "I’m not saying that’s the jump we’re going to make, but that level of quality. It’s hard to go back. We’re not quite there, and we think that’s really key to making an awesome consumer experience."
Enlarge / The final Oculus Rift development kit sitting on top of its included carrying case.
Balancing that desire for extra resolution with all the other things that make for a high quality head-mounted display is key. The Oculus team has evaluated dozens of LCD displays for everything from latency and pixel switching time to power consumption, weight, contrast, and brightness, Mitchell said. To evaluate which elements are worth trading for improvements in other areas, Mitchell said each specification goes into a weighted spreadsheet for each potential display. That spreadsheet then spits out a single number that can be used to guide Oculus’ decision on a display with the best balance between affordability, wearability, and immersion.
"Price is the number one factor… You can’t have a panel that costs $300 that you’re putting in a product that costs $300, and we definitely want to stay in that range for the consumer version," he said.
While Oculus has been looking to off-the-shelf cell phone displays for its materials, there have been some issues that manufacturers aren’t really equipped to handle. "So many of the cell phone devs aren’t worried about the same problems we are," Mitchell said. "Every one is unique in some weird way."
The dream would be to get a panel manufacturer to make a customized display just for the Rift, but that’s just not possible at this point. "The best panels are very expensive and just not in the price range, and some of them aren’t available to us; they’re only available to the people manufacturing them," Mitchell said. "It’s tricky, because we walk up and we’re tiny Oculus and we say, ‘Hey, we want to make this product—can we get some of your panels…’ and they say, "How many are you making?" and we say, ’10K,’ and they boot us out of the room. As we scale up, a big part of this whole process is slowly becoming a more credible company in the sense that we can talk to the biggest display manufacturers like Sharp and LG and say, ‘We really want to do this and is there any chance that your best panels might be available to us?’"
I was duly impressed with the Rift’s current head-tracking abilities, and Mitchell said he’d love to have full positional tracking in a future version of the Rift. That would let the Rift track you as you move around the room, but Mitchell admitted he’s more concerned with simply tracking how your head changes position slightly as you tilt and bend in place. "Right now, if there’s a [camera] in the world, and you bend down, the world moves with you, because your orientation hasn’t changed, so the Rift’s image doesn’t change." The team is looking into using ambient magnetic fields (like the Razer Hydra controller) and other potential solutions to get this feature. While they’d like to have it for the consumer launch, Mitchell admitted he "can’t say if it will be there."