Oculus Rift DK2 dev kit offers VR for $350 (hands-on)

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/ Updated: March 21, 2014 2:41 PM PDT

The Oculus Rift, the virtual-reality gaming headset that stole the show at last year's CES and this year's, too, is finally ready to developers to buy. The technology in January's Crystal Cove prototype has made it over to the DK2 dev kit, which adds a 1080p antiblur display and impressive head-tracking for $350. It'll be shipping in July.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Oculus VR has been building momentum with $75 million in new funding for the Rift and a year of game development from a variety of small and large-scale companies. The new headset has a more finished feel than a year ago, but it's far from what a final product will look like. The ski-goggle-like design fits snugly, and the outside's studded with little infrared LEDs that add positional tracking. A 1080p OLED display with 960x1,080 resolution per eye incorporates improved antiblur technology for better persistence of images, just like we experienced back at CES 2014. Basically, there's less lag, and hopefully less virtual-motion-induced nausea.

The updated design adds a power button, a USB 3.0 port on the Oculus headset, has an array of invisible IR LEDs on the goggles, and includes a new camera made by Oculus specifically designed to track the headset's motion.

The outer LEDs on the Rift's goggles are picked up by the camera, which is meant to be mounted near your monitor like a Kinect or PlayStation Eye, it tracks the headset's LEDs like motion-capture dots. The Rift uses an IMU plus optical tracking for 6 degrees of freedom of motion, improved from 3 degrees previously. The final consumer version of Oculus Rift may not necessarily have a camera or LEDs, but the current dev kit, DK2, does. Sony's Project Morpheus VR headset, also unveiled at GDC, has a similar-resolution display and also uses an external camera to track head motion.

Back in January, we tried two different demos with the Crystal Cove prototype, which had the technology now included in the DK2 dev kit. The new IR LEDs add an impressive level of positional tracking -- but not a full 180 degrees -- and the new, antiblur-equipped 1080p OLED display enabled much more fluid motion without any of the nausea that the last version invoked.

In the first January demo, we sat down and looked at a large tabletop tower defense game full of turrets, grunting monster minions, and little corridors. Sitting on a virtual throne, I could lean over and poke my head around corners of the table, and get a closer look at any part of the elaborate game. This test of positional tracking showed how much better the Oculus Rift is getting at mapping precise head motions.

The second demo placed us inside a starfighter cockpit for some dogfighting in Eve: Valkyrie, a game originally developed exclusively for the Oculus but now being demonstrated for Sony's Project Morpheus, too. I looked all around me and used an Xbox controller to simultaneously spin my ship in all directions hunting for enemies to fire missiles at. I whirled and spun as much as possible to try to induce nausea, but to the Crystal Cove prototype's credit I never felt that queasy. Last year, I felt disoriented just walking around a simple virtual town. The newest Oculus aims to eliminate motion smearing by blinking the display to black, much like blinking backlights in LCD TVs, and the final result is a lot less lag: 30 milliseconds, versus the original dev kit's 50 milliseconds. Oculus kits in the future will aim to do even better.

At GDC 2014, another game was demonstrated called Couch Knight, which combined simple hack-and-slash gaming in a virtual living room where your avatar is seated, holding a virtual controller. Eric Franklin tried this, as you can see above in the video, and the demo shows off positional tracking with Oculus.

The 1080p OLED display, which according to Oculus VR is larger than a smartphone but smaller than a tablet, is split into two 960x1,080-pixel-resolution halves, which are magnified when the goggles are put on. This means that even though it's a 1080p display you can see the pixel structure, and the new motion-blur reduction means these artifacts are easier to make out than before. But, the 3D effect of the worlds created are rich and immersive regardless. Higher resolution, to 4K and even beyond, is the goal. According to Iribe, because of the magnified field of view, 12K to 16K display resolution is the ideal goal...which, in a head-mounted small display, we're not likely to get to anytime soon.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Here's the take-away: the Oculus Rift looks better than it ever looked, and controls better, too. So, if it was an amazing experience last year, it's a step better today. And thanks to the new dev kit, a lot of developers will be able to take advantage in July for $350, which is a pretty good deal. Just don't expect the final experience: this is for developers, or for those who want to dabble in evolutionary, experimental VR technology. We still don't know when a consumer-ready final version of Oculus will appear, what it will look like, or how much it will cost.

Now that Sony's in the VR game with Project Morpheus -- a very similar type of VR proposition -- Oculus has competition, but both technologies could actually help each other. Between both, a unified platform for VR might not be that far away.

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