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CES 2014: Hands-on preview with the Oculus Rift “Crystal Cove” 1080p prototype

At last year’s CES, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset stood out as one of the more promising new gaming devices. It still isn't ready for consumers yet, but the Rift has gone through some major improvements, and I was fortunate enough to be able to try Oculus VR's "Crystal Cove" prototype here at CES 2014.

The Crystal Cove prototype offers full 1080p video for each eye, an upgrade from the 720p video displayed by the Oculus Rift development kit. The higher resolution means the picture looks sharper and more natural. 1080p is the most obvious improvement, but it isn't the only one, though.

Oculus VR has been experimenting with how to reduce blur in the Oculus Rift, and it's found a unique solution. Blur results partly from the video data the Rift shows, and the motion data it processes being slightly out of sync, with the motion sensors getting polled less often than the screen refreshes. Since the display has no motion data to work with during those refreshes, the frames appear blurry, not matching the movement of the head. The Crystal Cove prototype makes the display refresh only when the motion sensors are polled. The video still appears smooth (though slightly darker), and since it only refreshes when it can sync with motion data, blur is almost completely eliminated.

The new Oculus Rift features enhanced motion tracking, as well. While the development kit we tested last year used accelerometers and internal motion sensors to track movement, the Crystal Cove prototype adds infrared LEDs and a camera to the mix. An array of LEDs on the Rift tell the camera and the computer where the headset is in three-dimensional space.

It still has motion sensors, but the video "mocapping" of the headset makes head tracking more precise and can follow not just the Rift's pitch, yaw, and tilt, but its X, Y, and Z axis location. This let me actually lean left and right in the demos, making the view move with me and not just track that my head was tilting.

I tried two demos with the Crystal Cove prototype. One was a simple, mocked-up tower defence game where I sat across from a big fire demon and looked down at a maze where goblins walked by traps I had to trigger.

This was a surprise, because while it was first-person in the sense that I was looking from the perspective of someone standing over the maze, with head tracking as if I was physically there, the game itself is third-person. It was surprisingly natural, letting me look at the maze from different angles and adjust the view with my head. It was much more immersive than a screen, because the area around the maze and my view was a fantasy backdrop that fit in with the tone of the demo, and gave the impression that I was standing there facing the fire demon as he sent the goblins through my maze. This is promising for strategy and tabletop games; I can imagine a virtual casino that lets you physically sit at a table, or a virtual RPG where friends can gather around an online table and move miniatures and roll dice as if they were in the same room.

The second demo was a space simulator where I had to fly through an asteroid field and shoot enemy ships. The gamepad I held controlled the ship, letting me fly and shoot as if I was playing it on a monitor, but the head tracking let me look around the cockpit. I could see holographic displays close up and read meters, and look up through the canopy. While the ship's guns were controlled by the gamepad, my head tracking controlled missile lock. I could fly in one direction while looking at an enemy ship to get missile lock, letting me do the flight version of circle strafing. The experience was remarkably immersive, and the ability to look up and lock missiles while I took an evasive course added a new level of strategy.

Oculus VR hasn't announced availability of the 1080p Rift, either as a development kit or a consumer product. The company is still working to tweak and improve the Oculus Rift so developers make compelling content before it gets a retail release. The headset is still one of the most promising virtual reality devices we've seen yet, but it'll be some time before it hits the market.

At CES this week, we've also seen Sony's HMZ-T3Q VR headset, and discussed whether it's an Oculus Rift rival.