Even people who have no interest in VR or don’t pay attention to it are aware of the name “Oculus”. Why? Because Oculus has become to VR what Hoover is to vacuum cleaners. Founded in 2012 by Palmer Lucky and his colleagues, Oculus sold the idea that VR could be raised from the dead and that the time was right for the technology to shine.
We went through several pre-production Oculus models that got the media and developers hyped up. The developer models proved that the Oculus design worked, and now finally we have the actual, final consumer model that anyone can buy.
Oculus Rift Competition
Of course, Oculus’s success was also a source of competition. Other companies quickly figured out that if Oculus could to it, so could they – meaning that the consumer version of the HMD was released into a market with other headsets such as the HTC Vive. How does the Oculus stack up in the field? Is it still the gold standard or are you better off looking elsewhere?
What’s In the Box?
The standard Oculus bundle comes in a nice little carry case that has a molded insert for all the bits that make up the core system. There’s a space for the headset itself, with a molded spindle you can wrap the long cord around when storing it. There’s also a little clip to secure the tracking camera and a compartment that stores the included Xbox One controller and the little dongle that makes it work with a Windows PC.
What you won’t find included in the package are the Oculus Touch controller set. That’s a separate purchase, but usually offered at a discount if you buy all in one go.
The Dirty Details
The Oculus has a 2160×1200 OLED panel with a native refresh rate of 90Hz. This is exactly the same as its biggest competition, the HTC Vive. That makes sense, since Oculus has basically set the standard that others have followed.
It has to be said, though, that some other headset makers have already exceeded these specifications. But it’s still more than enough to give you a really convincing VR experience. All in all, the visual setup provides you with a 110-degree field of vision – comfortably above the 90-degree minimum needed for good immersion.
The Oculus has built-in headphones, but you can take them off if you want to use your own fancy cans. There’s a single camera sensor included in the kit, but you can add more to expand the size of the tracking area. There’s also a built-in microphone and a host of internal motion sensors.
The Infernal Engine
As you (hopefully) know, the Oculus is not a self-contained VR system. It needs a computer to drive all those pretty graphics and to process the tracking information. One of the big criticisms of the Oculus and other similar VR systems has been how heavy their system requirements are. It’s true that you need quite a hefty gaming computer to make use of the Rift.
The most important piece of the puzzle is your computer’s GPU or graphical processing unit. When the Rift launched, the minimum requirement was for a GTX 970 graphics card or equivalent. If you didn’t know, that was the second most expensive option at the time, but since then two things have changed.
The first thing that changed is Oculus figured out a way to reduce the system requirements. Kicking it down to a “mere” GTX 960 or equivalent. The second thing that happened is a small revolution in graphics technology. GPU maker Nvidia released its 10-series GPUs, which were a big leap in performance and power requirements. All of a sudden the cheap mid-range card had as much power as the GTX 960, which was upper mid-range. Not only that, these new GPUs could comfortably run in laptops, which are much more popular than desktop computers. In one fell swoop VR-ready computers became way more affordable. CPU requirements are now also more reasonable, with only a Core i3-6100 and eight GB of RAM needed to join the party.
You also have to keep in mind that while these are the minimum specs for Oculus in general, some specific games or experiences might have a higher requirements. Meeting the minimum specs also doesn’t mean that you’ll get an optimal experience. Because of the special methods Oculus has put in place to make the new minimum level work, there can be some loss in visual fidelity and slight artifacting. That is, some glitching in the picture. Oculus has a downloadable tool on their site that will let you know if you current computer has the chops to run the system. Be sure to give that a try before you spend a bunch of money on an HMD your computer can’t handle.
Setting it Up
Honestly, setting up the Oculus Rift for the first time was an absolute breeze. Just make sure you have a decent internet connection, because there’s quite a bit of downloading involved. Not only do you need the system drivers, but you also have to install the Oculus digital storefront. Just connect the camera to the USB 3.0 port, the Xbox controller to a USB 2 port, and the HDMI to the, er, HDMI port.
That last one actually gave me a bit of a headache, since my computer only has one HDMI port and my computer screen only has HDMI in; that meant I needed to get an adapter for one of the other ports on the card. So keep that in mind.
The other key part of the Oculus experience is the Oculus store. Yes, you can use it the boring old way with a mouse and screen, but it’s designed to be completely usable from within VR. You can access your library and buy new titles without taking off your HMD.
The store isn’t perfect, but it is definitely a strong reason to have the Oculus, because it makes it as easy as using something like iTunes, and there was a wealth of content available to get to grips with the new system. I’m especially happy that there were some free demos that let you experience a variety of VR content out there.
Blowing Off Steam
One problem that does seem to crop up from time to time happens when you venture outside of the Oculus-approved garden. It’s not their fault, but most of the really interesting VR games are on the Steam platform, which happens to be owned by the same people who make the HTC Vive. I’m not saying that had anything to do with my difficulties, but getting Steam games to detect my Oculus can be a little hit and miss sometimes. Still, most of the time it works just fine.
Can We Have the Room?
The big elephant in the, er, room is of course room-scale VR. That’s HTC and Valve’s big magic trick with the Vive. Thanks to their Lighthouse motion trackers and room-scale software you can get up and walk around with automated warnings when you get close to a real wall outside of VR. Oculus has tried to expand the tracking area of their product by allowing you to add more cameras, but it lacks the polish and forethought that went into the Lighthouse system.
So you have to ask yourself how important room-scale VR is to you. After all, most VR games aren’t being designed with that in mind and the Vive doesn’t have the sort of market dominance that guarantees you’ll have that sort of content to play on a regular basis. There’s also a whole host of other solutions such as omnidirectional treadmills and shoe-controllers (for real) to think about.
Is It Still a Good Buy?
At the moment there is no talk of a second consumer generation of the Oculus, so it’s still the best that the company has to offer. Does that mean you should be buying an Oculus instead of the other HMDs that are now on the market? That’s a tough question. While the Oculus has the widest software support of any HMD, other makers have surpassed in many technical aspects. More importantly, everyone has worked to make sure that their headsets are Oculus-compatible, further reducing the argument that the Oculus should be the one.
However, Oculus has cut down the price of the Rift by so much that everything seems to balance out again, and it really is a excellent piece of hardware. So my verdict is this: if you want the most advanced VR headset money can buy, the Oculus ain’t it. If you want to buy a consummately excellent VR headset at a fair price with incredible developer support, the Oculus is still very much where it’s at.
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