Oculus Rift: Review
For the foreseeable past, the hopes and dreams of many virtual reality enthusiasts could be brought up with two words: Oculus Rift. Augmented by the rise of cheap smartphone displays, Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey took a technology that most people thought a retro curiosity and convinced them that it could change the future of the world. The Rift let you skydive without a parachute, or take on any experience you desire. It helped artists and creators show and share the world through another person’s eyes. It simulated beheading, and many other kinds of experience. It put you in fictional settings that ranged from kaiju-fighting robots to Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment, there is no end to the experiences that are possible.
And then, over time, the Rift got competition — from others like the PlayStation VR and the HTC Vive, as well as totally new VR options like Google Cardboard and Oculus’ own mobile Gear VR headset. Consumer virtual reality went from a gaming niche to an all-purpose entertainment device, and then to the next option in new frontiers. While “Oculus Rift” was no longer a word for “virtual reality,” Oculus was a huge and main player, especially after Facebook bought it for an estimated $2 billion.
There was just one issue: nobody knew what the Rift would look like, or what date it would come out. Luckey and the rest of Oculus’ leadership were adamant about not making promises they couldn’t keep, or delivering an unfinished innovation — two things that doomed consumer virtual reality decades ago. But after nearly four years, the finished Oculus Rift has shipped to its very first group of customers, and its time to see whether the headset that started it all is still pushing the bleeding edge of virtual reality.
Oculus hardly ever brags about its heavier design, but one of the best things it’s done is make something so incredibly geeky look (somewhat) normal. The $599 consumer Rift is full of excellent and thoughtful touches, starting with the delightfully soft rubberized carrying case it ships in, which makes the whole thing feel like a geeky and fun console. The all-black headset is downright understated by usual gaming hardware standards, with a front of smooth rubber, sides coated in coarse cloth, and lenses surrounded by a web of black lycra, you feel a bit Victorian. It’s tethered to a PC by a single wire, which runs out your left temple and along one of the changeable facial straps. William Gibson’s best-known experience into virtual reality might be Neuromancer, but the Rift feels more like something from his fashionable novel Pattern Recognition — it’s the kind of minimalist product that its brand-allergic, cool hunting protagonist Cayce Pollard would approve of.
When you try getting the Rift to fit for you, it can prove difficult at first. While there’s a adjustable focus knob at the bottom, a lot of the screen’s visibility depends on precisely how it’s angled around your eyes, and it’s easy to give yourself a headache by strapping it as tightly as possible to keep the best fit. But once you get used to wearing it, the headset feels easy and much more comfortable than most of its competition, it seals against your face with a firm but flexible ring of foam in place. Since I have yet to break a sweat in the Rift, I can’t say how easy it is to tidy up, but the ring is removable and replaceable with a simple order — although there’s no spare included. I also don’t have to deal with wearing glasses, but my Verge colleagues who do have had a great response — they could either fit the headset over moderately-sized frames or, depending on their prescription, get frames that fit.
Along with a cylindrical black tracking camera on a slender 8-inch stand, the Rift includes two accessories: an Xbox One box and a small, easy device called the Oculus Remote. Unlike Sony and HTC, Oculus isn’t releasing the Rift with a full controller of its own, since its Oculus Touch equipment will arrive in the second half of this upcoming year. As of now, the chunky and colorful Xbox gamepad seems slightly out of place next to the sleek Rift design. The black remote, which is oval shaped, fits in well, although its fabrication doesn’t feel as robust as the rest of the system.
The Rift is a quality product, and compared to the developer-focused Oculus devices of years past, it’s incredibly easy to set up. The 4-meter headset tether ends with one USB and one HDMI port, and the tracking camera is plugged in with its own USB cable — there’s no outside power cable or controller box on any other side. You’ll just download Oculus’ Windows app and run through a short, though detailed, setup checklist before getting into VR world. Granted, getting to this step requires having a powerful gaming desktop or desktop computer, which can produce plenty of glitches on its own. And since most PCs have only one HDMI port, you’ll need to use a different connection for your monitor, an extra and not totally easy step for lots of people. Overall though, it’s as easy as you can imagine installing a completely different type of computer hardware to be used.