"So...when's the consumer version of the Rift coming?" I've been asking Oculus that question since the first time I strapped one over my eyes, and every time co-founder Nate Mitchell would give me a rueful shake of the head. "We don't know. It's coming."
But we know: It's Q1 2016. And thus it's high time for Oculus to discuss what consumers will actually get their hands on next year bring to an end this long and winding road. It's a road that's seen VR turn from a novelty into an arms race, that's seen Oculus go from "easy frontrunner" to jockeying for position with Valve, that's seen the fledgling company bought by Facebook of all things.
It's been weird.
On Thursday, at an Oculus press conference in San Francisco, we got our first real details about the consumer version of Oculus Rift, informally known as "Consumer Rift."
The big news: a new control scheme designed for virtual reality: Oculus Touch. More on that later.
Unlike Valve and HTC's Vive, the consumer version of the Rift features no wall-mounted IR base stations, no packed-in controllers. Instead, like the DK1 and DK2 models it's a mostly self-contained unit, with the addition of the key "Crescent Bay" prototype features--namely, built-in headphones with positional audio. And there's a new feature: The headphones are removable, rather than merely bending out of the way.
The DK2's positional-tracking camera also makes a return, though it looks quite a bit sleeker--and it apparently sits on a big stand on your desk, instead of on your monitor. Aiding the camera, the headset itself is now equipped with trackers all the way around, as seen on Crescent Bay, which will make a huge difference for those who've used DK2--no more "I turned my head too far and the camera lost me" situations.
But the most important changes are presumably related to the Rift's screen--and we still haven't seen it. In the Consumer Rift announcement we were told it'll run dual displays totaling a 2160x1200 resolution at 90Hz--"maybe not the resolution you may one day want," said CEO Brendan Iribe, but he deemed it a good start. I'm most excited about a totally extraneous feature though: You can now adjust focus with a built-in dial instead of needing to swap out lenses. About time.
The Windows connection
Oculus also announced a partnership with Windows--both on the OS side and the hardware side. First of all, the Consumer Rift will work natively with Windows 10. That's a pretty huge deal, considering what a pain it is to set up the current DK2.
The Oculus Rift will also ship with a wireless Xbox One controller. In other words, Oculus's baseline control scheme is basically the same thing we've already been doing for the last two years.
That's probably not going to make Oculus go mainstream, though. Put a standard gamepad into a non-gamer's hands and they freeze up. Put one in their hands while their eyes are covered and you're basically asking the impossible of them. To say nothing of the fact that an Xbox controller has nowhere near the same immersive capabilities as the Vive's hand-simulating wands, or the Razer Hydra/Leap Motion/basically any of the VR-specific control schemes we've seen released in the last two years.
For that you'll need...
The big news: Oculus Touch
So the big revelation is Oculus Touch--basically the Vive's wands, but...rings. They track your hands so you can use them in virtual reality.
There are some interesting capabilities here: For instance, Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey said the big ring things are used to understand what position your fingers are in, which sounds pretty interesting. You can give a thumbs up or point or (I assume) flip people the bird. There are also analog sticks, as you might expect, for more traditional controls.
I don't know how they'll feel, though. My first instinct is that they look goofy, but considering Oculus hired a bunch of talent that worked on the Xbox 360 controller (a.k.a. the most comfortable controller I've ever used) I'm reserving official judgment until I see/feel how Touch works in a real-world environment. Look for more on that during E3 next week.
More VR games are coming
Finally, Oculus trotted out a bunch of VR games from CCP, Insomniac, and others--plus its virtual storefront.
Oculus Home launches as soon as you put on the Rift, similar to the store on Samsung's Oculus-powered GearVR. The interface is VR-ready, meaning no more fumbling with a mouse and keyboard while trying to peek at your desktop. Oculus's Nate Mitchell said we'll hear more about Home at Oculus's annual Connect conference in September.
As for the games themselves:
CCP showed off EVE Valkyrie again, which of course is an Oculus launch title and...well, something we've been seeing for two years now. It's still fantastic, but you probably already know how you feel.
[Disclosure: My roommate works with CCP as part of the external PR team through LewisPR.]
Insomniac showed off Edge of Nowhere, a third-person science fiction game. I have no idea how it plays on the Rift because 2D trailers aren't great at conveying VR experiences, but hey--I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. At least it looks cool.
A third game, Chronos, showed a brief trailer--again, in third-person. And again, I don't know how it plays. It looks like it involves moving around a labyrinth.
At least we saw a few games, though--and all of them will be available next year. That's the one big thing that Oculus has going for it right now: We need games, we need experiences to show off VR that aren't just hobbyist demos--and Oculus has them, thanks to staffing up on the dev side.
Prepare for an Oculus-Valve VR smack-down
Now, the big question is whether it's enough to beat Valve? And the answer: I honestly don't know. I'll admit: After trying the Vive, I'm a bit disappointed by the Rift's lack of get-up-and-walk-around VR. On the other hand, Valve's device is probably going to cost quite a bit more and require a lot of space to take full advantage. The Rift is pretty easy to get up and running with.
And of course, there's also the release date issue. The Vive is expected to launch later this year. The Rift won't launch until early 2016. Oculus doesn't seem too worried, but I can't help but wonder what sort of effect launching first will have on the competition.
It's ambiguous. I honestly don't know which will come out on top, though I expect we'll have a better idea coming out of E3 next week. That'll be the first time we'll get to go hands-on with a lot of what Oculus showed today.
Either way, I'm excited. We're near the point where these devices will be real. They'll be things you can touch, buy, and play with instead of simply words on a page. Will people embrace virtual reality? Will it overcome the stigmas, silence the naysayers, and become (as I hope) the future (or at least part of the future) of gaming?
We'll see. I'll have hands-on impressions of the Consumer Rift literally as soon as I can strap one to my face. Stay tuned to PCWorld for more!