CES 2013: Hands on with the Oculus Rift VR headset

I don't know if I've seen the future of virtual reality, but I do know I've seen its best chance of amounting to anything in decades. This renewed hope comes from the Oculus Rift produced by Oculus VR, and my short time playing with it has convinced me that it can make first-person games immersive to an unforeseen extent.

Virtual reality has long seemed like a dead concept. The idea of putting on bulky goggles and virtually exploring places was huge in the 1990s, but has since given way to augmented reality and using your smartphone's camera to feed you information.

As a child, I was a devout follower of VR, and I dreamed of some day putting on a ridiculous helmet and exploring virtual worlds like someone from VR.5. Incidentally, this probably marks the first time in approximately 15 years that anyone has ever mentioned VR.5, a thirteen episode TV show that aired in the US in 1995.

Cut to CES 2013, and a suite in the Venetian, Las Vegas, at which Oculus VR had two prototype Oculus Rift devices set up. The Oculus Rift looks like a throwback to 90s-era VR displays, with a giant visor that straps to your head and blocks out all outside light. Even the prototype development version, built of moulded plastic instead of a foamcore shell, looks almost hilariously bulky. These aren't video glasses you can put on during a flight to watch a movie. These are virtual reality goggles, the likes of which I've dreamt of using to play video games since I was a kid.

My guides from Oculus VR strapped the goggles to my head and put an Xbox 360 controller in my hands so I could try the "Citadel" demo, a look at how the game Infinity Blade can work on the Oculus VR. As soon as the Oculus Rift was fitted securely to my head, I found myself standing in a small medieval village. Guards in armour and carrying large weapons walked by, seemingly ignoring me as snow fell from the sky.

It wasn't quite realistic, but that was only because of the limits of the Unreal Engine and not the Oculus VR itself. Snowflakes fell before my eyes with perceivable depth from my face. I walked around the guards and saw their huge swords shift as I stepped, the blades seemingly inches away from cutting me. Even shutters on a window popped out at my face and I walked around them to see tangible depth. When I got very close to objects, it felt like I was close, and that they were inches from my eyes.

This is where the seams in the demo showed, because the textures of things like the stone walls and wooden shutters appear completely flat without advanced bump making, pixel shading, and other effects, so it looked more like I was staring at a house that was wallpapered to look like it was made of stone and wood. Again, this is the software's fault, not the hardware's. Considering this was just a demonstration of what the Oculus Rift can do, I was impressed.

After the 3D effect of the Oculus Rift, the head tracking provided the most sense of immersion. I didn't just see objects with depth, I saw them as if I was looking at them with my own eyes. The Oculus Rift tracked every movement of my head as I looked around, tilting and shifting the picture appropriately. I found myself watching a snowflake fall from the sky and moving my head to follow it. I looked from high above my head down to the ground as the snowflake fell. I couldn't see my feet or any other part of my body, but again, this is a software issue. The effect was still incredible.

Unreal Tournament

The Citadel demo was the most detailed, but it wasn't interactive. That's why Oculus VR prepared another demo that put me in the action. I played a modified version of Unreal Tournament 3 that incorporated the Oculus Rift's head tracking into the gameplay. The effect was incredibly immersive, making me aim with both my thumbs and my head to get bots in my non-existent sights. There were no displays in the game, which meant no aiming reticle or health information. Again, this was just a proof of concept demo, and while I learned to aim with my head quickly, real games for the Oculus Rift will have to balance aiming and head tracking, and also incorporate a reticle in the display.

After I took off the Oculus Rift, I found myself disoriented for a few moments. This was because the head tracking was so accurate in the demos, switching between real and virtual reality was jarring. The effect was so immersive that my brain really felt like I was there on some level, because the display followed how I looked at things normally. It might have also been the fact that the straps on the Oculus Rift were a little tight, so my head felt slightly tingly because I effectively had a very large, padded rubber band around it for several minutes.

Oculus VR is getting ready to ship developer kits, but the Oculus Rift is a long way from hitting stores. While the technology is there, the combination of stereoscopic vision and head tracking means games need to be built for the Oculus Rift with the device in mind, and that means experimentation and perfecting the interface. Things that work in standard first-person games don't work when you have an immersive 3D picture with head tracking, and motion sickness is a problem that must be tiptoed around. Still, it's an impressive display even at this early stage. If enough game developers get on board, we could see a new resurgence of virtual reality as a "future" technology thanks to the Oculus Rift.