​Oculus Rift's latest iteration lets you walk through virtual space, and it's amazing

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I'm on a submarine, I think. Ahead of me is a control panel. I walk towards it. I hear a sound behind me: steam through vents? I turn around and see a mirrored panel. I'm not in the reflection. That's because I'm not there. I walk towards it, and feel the floor beneath me drop a bit. I'm at the edge of the foam Oculus square where I'm allowed to demo the free-moving experience that's Oculus Rift Crescent Bay. Also, I feel a tug on the back of my head: that's the cable running back to the PC that's powering my virtual world.

It's getting to the point where small tugs of cables are the only things distracting from the completely immersive feel of Oculus' vision of virtual reality. Each year, Oculus has been revealing new prototype revisions, with no retail version yet in sight. Crescent Bay, revealed last September at the first Oculus Connect developer's conference, has a number of revisions to the hardware at last CES, but the biggest differences have to do the freedom to move through space.

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An external camera still enables positional tracking, but now you can walk around as well as duck, turn and twist. Because of this freedom of movement, the Oculus demo zone I stepped into was a padded room: the square floor mat I stood on represented a limited amount of freedom, but I could go anywhere in it. Kneel, crawl: as long as the cable allowed it, I could do it. The Rift's new eyewear has been improved: Fresnel lenses and improved display resolution offer a crisper, more fluid experience, and the fold-down headphones create 3D positional sound, enabling a type of auditory VR.

Oculus

It turns out, that comes in really handy: Oculus showed an expanded 7.5-minute demo experience that zapped me in and out of a variety of hallucinatory worlds, and I was free to look around and explore as I saw fit. The sound cues meant I'd know if, say, a Tyrannosaurus rex was behind me, or if there was something else I should see. The freedom of movement, the ability to look anywhere, reminded me of location-based theater: real-life experiences like Sleep No More. Virtual reality has never felt more real.

Nick Statt/CNET

I was in a Victorian, Alice in Wonderland-esque sitting room, looking in a mirror at a hovering mask that stared back at me. Golden cherubs loomed nearby. I stood on the top of a towering skyscraper in a steampunk metropolis, walking right to the edge of a drop-off dozens of stories down. I stood on an alien world, as a comic but vivid-looking alien stood near me, studying me. I ducked behind a music stand as it shattered while giant robotic arms battled with sparking magic wands. A dinosaur thundered over me as I tried to move out of the way. I knelt down and walked around a tiny miniature city with its own train system, and brought my face right up to the tracks. I sat by a crackling cartoon fire as a papercraft moose and other forest animals huddled near an origami tree. And thanks to a final demo provided by Epic, I glided along a massive city firefight in bullet-time as soldiers fired at each other and a car flipped over my head.

I could move around virtual things, duck under them, do everything but hold them.

Compared to the already-impressive mobile Samsung Gear VR, also developed by Oculus, Crescent Bay is an even bigger quantum leap. My jaw dropped open. I smiled. I laughed. It was a hell of a ride.

There are still a lot of things the Oculus Rift lacks: there's no way to grab or interact with things easily, at least in the official demo. The limited amount of space means movement has its challenges. Also, you're moving blind: sure, there are padded walls in the demo room, but if I tried what I did in my home I'd run probably break my ankle. Freedom from a cable is another issue: as long as the Oculus Rift remains tethered, total freedom of movement isn't that easy. I had to untangle myself a few times as I twisted around. Also, I couldn't touch or move anything. Oculus' acquisition of NimbleVR means that reaching for objects or doing stuff in the virtual world could be the next big step. Deep, real interactivity can happen via existing peripherals and accessories, but there isn't formal support across the board for a type of VR interaction standard. When that happens, look out.

As I took the helmet off, I felt tears coming to my eyes. It sounds cheesy, but it's true. VR doesn't have a finished final product yet or real-world uses that totally make sense, but it's real. And every time I see it, it's more impressive than I expect.

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