CES 2015: Taking a tour of virtual reality with Oculus Rift

LAS VEGAS — I’m not convinced that Oculus Rift will live up to its considerable hype, but it’s definitely very cool.

I got to experience the cutting edge virtual reality system for the first time at the Consumer Electronics Show here on Wednesday. I was stunned by how well it worked and how immersive it was.

In the past, virtual reality systems have often suffered from low-quality graphics and slow refresh rates. Such shortcomings made them less than immersive and could even make them nauseating to experience.

Not so Oculus Rift, which is now owned by Facebook. The company’s latest prototype — dubbed Crescent Bay — features high-quality, photo-realistic graphics and a 90 hertz refresh rate. By comparison, many TVs have a refresh rate of just 60 hertz.

The device looks much like other virtual reality systems. It resembles a pair of ski goggles in which the lenses have been replaced with dual displays. The Crescent Bay prototype — third to date — also has a pair of headphones hanging off the straps.

During the seven-minute demo the company gave me, I was growled at by a frighteningly real T-Rex that walked over my head, stood on the edge of a tall building looking down into the city below and even had bullets and shrapnel fly through me during a firefight with a menacing robot. The experience was pretty amazing. I was able to turn my gaze just about everywhere in a nearly spherical space around me without any hitches or delays.

There’s no word yet on when Oculus Rift will actually go on sale for the general public or what exactly it will cost. But it won’t be cheap. Users will be required to have a recent gaming-optimized PC to be able to run Oculus’ system. Nate Mitchell, an Oculus co-founder and vice president of product for the company, said it would cost at least $1,000, including the PC needed to run it.

And that’s just one of the many challenges Oculus will face in bringing the system to market. The natural market for the device will be game enthusiasts, but it won’t be compatible with the latest gaming systems from Microsoft and Sony, which have a far greater user base than high-end gaming PCs.

For now, Oculus Rift will need to be tethered to the PCs it works with. That’s going to limit where and how consumers will be able to use it. During my demo, as you can see in the photo above, someone from the company was helping guide the cable to make sure I didn’t trip over it. At least in the first iteration, the device is going to be designed for seated use, Mitchell said.

While I was impressed with the overall experience, I wasn’t super-impressed with the displays. They aren’t as high resolution as the Retina displays in Apple’s iPhone or iPad; with the display that close to your face, you can definitely see the pixels.

Mitchell noted that at least with current graphics processors, Oculus faces a trade off between refresh rate and screen resolution. Even with the less-than-Retina resolution the device is using, it still requires a high-end graphics processor.

And there were some things that broke the virtual reality illusion. At least in the demo the system had no way of recognizing what I was doing with my hands or body, so I couldn’t interact with what I was seeing. If I raised my hands in response to a virtual bullet coming at me, the system didn’t register that. I’m guessing, that will be addressed though, either via input from a game controller, or potentially by using Oculus in conjunction with a motion sensing system like Kinect.

But even if these kinks get worked out and the price comes down enough to make it accessible, I’m not convinced that Oculus Rift in particular or virtual reality in general will be mainstream consumer success anytime soon. The problem is the glasses. They disconnect you with the actual world — and people — around you. Wearing them is an individual experience.

Sure, you can share that world with others virtually. But I have a hard time imagining a family sitting in their living room, all wearing Oculus Rift devices on their faces while watching a movie or playing a game. You’d miss too much of the shared experience in the real world.

Still, even in its development stage, Oculus Rift is very cool. And I can’t wait to play with the final version.

Photo of Mercury News columnist Troy Wolverton experiencing Oculus Rift at the Consumer Electronics Show taken by Tim Bradshaw of the Financial Times.

 

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  • B. Jackson

    I have to slightly disagree with the last paragraph of this article. The nature of gaming today is dominated by the individual players playing in online communities per game. COD, World of Warcraft, Destiny, and so on..while games like madden or nba 2015, street fighter X all are better played against an opponent sitting next to you.. such as your brother, friend or dad.. or god forbid your mom stomps your butt with a buzzer beating 3 pointer! (yes its happened!)

    The nature of the Oculus VR will be in the multiplayer arena of online games such as elite dangerous, MMO’s, shooting, or solo adventure games where players intentionally shut themselves away from the outside world for the immersion that the Oculus will provide them.

    Imagine yourself in Elite Dangerous in full HD with 3d surround sound and 3d vision. In the gorgeous dragonage inquisition with a dragon bearing down on you in VR, its flaming breath rushing across the ground in your direction..the immersion of a realistic 3d shooter with an actual replica gun in your hands that jerks when you shoot, sounds like the real thing and looks as great as battlefield 4.. 4 deep in the final turn of nascar 2015 on the final turn of the daytona 500 with your spotter screaming in your ear to hold your line as your force feedback steering wheel slowly slips and grinds its way around the corner while the oculus shows you it all in 3d from the drivers point of view.

    while the controls that we want are not there fully yet.. its coming.. one step at a time.. people need to view this just as the launching of the first 3dfx video cards…. its a game changing tech that will need time to grow into the monster we all hope and pray it will become. all we can do is sit back and enjoy the ride!

 
 
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