This week has seen another GDC, and another over-before-you-know it thrill ride on the Oculus Rift. Virtual reality is very much for developers and enthusiasts willing to pony up for a developer kit version of Oculus VR's new and improved PC gaming headset, but when will the much-ballyhooed system be ready for the masses?
In the wake of Sony's big curtain-raising Tuesday night for its own PS4-optimised virtual reality headset here at the Game Developer Conference in San Francisco, on Wednesday Oculus VR announced the availability of its second-generation Rift developer kit for $350 (£210). Codenamed Crystal Cove when it showed up in January at the Consumer Electronics Show, the prototype VR system is now going by the moniker "DevKit 2," or "DK2" for short.
Since I had a chance to take the first edition of the Rift for a spin at last year's GDC, I was eager to give the DK2 a try to see if Oculus has made enough improvements to its VR headset to start the countdown to a consumer release.
After a brief run on the exclusive-to-Rift, sci-fi dogfighter demo EVE: Valkyrie from CCP Games, my answer to the "Is it ready for primetime?" question is... yeah, maybe. Sure... why not? Who knows?
A lot still needs to fall into place for Oculus before it brings the Rift out as a finalised product for general release. One thing's for sure, though – this is a much more mature system than it was a year ago.
Back then, I piloted mechs through Hawken's sprawling, dystopian cityscape for about three minutes of thrilling but somewhat buggy gameplay. The great fear voiced by many Rift DevKit 1 demo runners at GDC 2013 was that we'd all become disoriented and wind up puking up our guts.
When we all came away from our demos without demanding that a barf bag be added to the VR headgear, it was a pleasant surprise. It was similarly nice to learn this week that Oculus and CCP Games have risen to the challenge of making a potentially vertigo-inducing, weightless setting like the one in the Valkyrie demo a pleasurable, non-sick-making experience as well.
How did they do it? Well, DK2 features some "key technical breakthroughs" not present in the first-generation Rift, Oculus said. These include a higher-resolution display – effectively 1080p per eye in DK2, up from 720p in the original Rift – which "reduces the screen-door effect and improves clarity, colour, and contrast" for users, according to the startup.
Latency improvements and in particular the use of a low-persistence OLED display in the DK2 are key advances that "eliminate motion blur and judder, two of the biggest contributors to simulator sickness," Oculus said.
The new Rift also uses an outside, motion-sensing camera in addition to the accelerometer and gyroscope built into the Rift headgear to better track the headset's orientation as users move their heads. It now has a built-in latency tester, an on-headset USB accessory port, new optics, a redesigned SDK, and further optimised Unity and Unreal Engine 4 integrations, according to Oculus.
I was also pleased to see that the new Rift has headphones, completing the immersive gaming experience. The audio component was absent from the earlier dev kit.
What about the gameplay? Like I said, my demo was all-too-brief, perhaps three minutes total. That was barely enough time to get used to the controls and reliably track targets in Valkyrie, let alone to get a solid read on the game.
What I will say is that the visuals sure seemed crisper and the mechanics more seamless than they did with the first-gen Rift. Physically lifting my head up or looking to the side simultaneously achieved that effect in the gamespace, whereas there was a small but perceptible lag on the older rig.
The way the Valkyrie demo worked is that you would squeeze the left trigger on your controller while staring down an enemy ship out in space and marked in red. That action locked in targeting for your missiles or lasers, which you could then squeeze off using either trigger to blast the enemy out of the space lanes. Pretty good fun, especially with the addition of sound.
Thrusting forward for a speed burst and using the thumb sticks to head off in new directions produced a thrilling feeling of being right there in the weightless, immensity of space, where small accelerations and turns could produce big changes in your ship's orientation and movements. All and this was accomplished without ever producing any motion sickness, which again, seems to me to be quite the accomplishment for the Oculus and CCP Games teams.
What I did find frustrating was an inability to turn and see your missiles hit a target that might speed by your own ship before getting blown up. That's just the way things work on your main display during many always-moving-forward games like Valkyrie, I get it. But it was sort of weird in a way that it isn't with a normal game screen. You're able to move your field of view simply by turning your head with the Rift on, except when you try to turn around and see what's behind you and that natural movement synchronicity stops working.
There was probably a way to pull up a secondary screen showing the rear-view mirror field, but I couldn't figure it out. Quibbling? Probably. Yet there's a feeling I've had after both of my brief test runs on the first and second version of the Rift that I've experienced something I'd really enjoy in bigger doses – only what if I don't?
It's like only ever tasting half a spoonful of an unusual new flavour of ice cream a couple of times. Do you want more? Sure. Is it guaranteed to become your new favourite brand if you had as much as you liked? Who knows...
What I do know is that DK2 marks a big step forward from the original Oculus Rift dev kit that made such a splash at last year's GDC. Oculus called its original Rift "a strong starting point" with a number of shortcomings that prevented it from delivering a great virtual reality experience. In our first look at the $300 (£180) dev kit, we came to the same conclusion; it was an intriguing device, but intended only for "gadget fanatics" and developers.
And while DK2 won't yet fly as a full consumer product, "the fundamental building blocks for great VR are there," Oculus VR said this week.
"All the content developed using DK2 will work with the consumer Rift," Oculus said, while hedging on offering a concrete date for a consumer release. "And while the overall experience still needs to improve before it's consumer-ready, we're getting closer every day – DK2 is not the Holodeck yet, but it's a major step in the right direction."
Kotaku's Kirk Hamilton had a much longer run on DK2 than I did, demoing a multiplayer, virtual living room game that takes you from lying prone on a couch into a world of pure strangeness. He described that experience as "horrifying" and "weird" and yet he very much "didn't want to stop playing."
That's pretty much where the Rift stands with me right now. I'd like some more, please.