LOS ANGELES -- This has been the fourth time, or more, I've re-visited the Oculus Rift. Over the past few years, Oculus has been promising a refined solution for virtual reality: a concept that's been lurking around for over 20 years, but never achieved...well, reality. Until now.
Each year there was a new developer prototype, but no news on a final version. But now that's been nailed down: early 2016, joining a crowded landscape that now includes the HTC/Valve Vive and PlayStation's Project Morpheus. The Rift was unveiled in a press conference before E3: it's finally gotten to a form that founder Palmer Luckey and CEO Brandon Iribe consider "final." This is the Rift you'll actually be able to buy next year. And I got to try it in a private meeting room at E3 in Los Angeles...with Luckey himself guiding me through the experience.
Playing with the new Rift headset, with new games
Oculus Rift is still a PC gaming peripheral, meaning you need a pretty serious gaming PC to plug it into. It's meant to be tethered to your gaming system. But the new Rift headset not only looks sleeker, it's significantly lighter than before. It still houses a 2,160x1,200-pixel display, lenses, removable earphones with positional 3D audio and surface-mounted sensors that allow motion tracking, via a small IR camera-stand that sits on your desk or TV.
This is similar to previous builds of the Oculus Rift, but the new design is easier to take on and off, and feels more invisible. There's also a new dial that adjusts the lens distance between both eyes, to accommodate different faces.
Unlike other times I tried the Rift, I didn't stand: I played while sitting in a chair, with an Xbox One wireless controller. The Rift will be packaged with an Xbox One controller and adapter when it debuts next year. Luckey thinks it's the best gaming controller around: I'm inclined to agree. It's also a controller that's already made to work seamlessly with PCs.
I tried a few games of the nine offered to me from a menu that popped up as I stood in a virtual waiting room: Chronos, and Edge of Nowhere, by Insomniac Games, maker of the beloved Ratchet & Clank series.
Both games are third-person experiences: You're not seeing through your character's eyes, but are looking at the action from somewhere else in the room. Edge of Nowhere put me on windblown frozen cliffs. Someone was in front of me, an explorer. I started moving, and he started moving. Then I realized I was him, controlling him third-person. As I moved him around, climbing and jumping, I could also move my head around, looking at large chasms, and foreboding cliffs up ahead.
An icicle dropped on me: I died. I started again, and made sure to look up this time. A giant alien creature flew overhead. Is this another world? I ran into a cave, dimly lit, and made my way toward glowing ice walls.
The whole experience felt like a console game: Uncharted, or Tomb Raider. But being able to look around made the "TV screen" completely bleed away. The headset's now so light, and fits so easily over my glasses, that I stopped thinking about it. The earphones, just like previous Oculus experiences, sound great. I kept one earphone-flap open, just so I could listen to my camera crew and ask questions. Otherwise, I was lost in another world.
I found a rope, and realized I could climb down, deep into a well. The scale of VR always surprises me: here, simple jumps and rope-climbs feel daunting, and real, as if I can reach out and grab my doll-like avatar. Or, as if I was a human drone, following myself.
Chronos takes place in a giant castle-like maze, with a cryptic vibe similar to Sony's Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. I ran from room to room, solving puzzles, finding things to collect, and running from strange creatures. But in each room, I stayed in a fixed place and watched myself move around: like I was now jumping from security camera to security camera in a huge house, watching myself. Both of these were out-of-body experiences, in VR.
Last, I tried a VR sports game, where I was an ice hockey goalie. I pressed shoulder buttons on the controller to make saves (or, usually, give up goals). It had a comic, NBA Jam kind if feel. But it was fun -- of course it was immersive, but it also felt easy to use.
The crazy part isn't this: it's Oculus' new Touch controller, which I tried next.
Part Two: Dipping my hands into another world
Oculus Rift never had a clear method of input before, except for standard game controllers. But you need some way to interact with a virtual space. HTC/Valve's Vive uses a set of sticks with controls on. Sony's PlayStation-based Morpheus uses PlayStation Move controllers.
Oculus Rift has the Touch: a pair of motion-sensing grippable controllers with buttons and an analog stick on top. It's a similar idea, with a slightly different design. They look more like skeletal hand-grips than wands.
I was led into a testing room, a Rift put on my face again as someone helped me get my Touch controllers on my hands. As they slipped on, I saw glowing hands float in space in front of me. I was in a room filled with toys. And across the virtual play-space, Palmer Luckey's head and hands glowed: he was operating an avatar, speaking to me over my headphones as he stood in another room.
"Relax your fingers." I was gripping my hands tight over the Touch's analog stick and buttons. "Move your thumb off the analog stick." He asked me to give a thumbs-up. I realized he meant I should actually lift my thumb in the air. I did. My virtual thumb moved up. "Point," he said. I pointed. My finger extended in the virtual world.
Luckey asked me to grab a block in front of me. I relaxed my fingers -- forefinger, middle and thumb -- and picked up one of several blocks on the table in front of me. There were balls, blocks, remote controls, laser guns. Targets and garden gnomes and masks were mounted all around me. I threw the ball. I didn't throw well. I tried again, and knocked over a statue. I tossed another block at Luckey. He ducked, and threw something back at me.
A tetherball was hanging from the sky, and I punched it. He punched it back at me, as we stood across from each other: disembodied faces and floating hands, having a chat. Then I picked up some virtual roman candles, as he lit mine and we shot sparks in the air. He asked me to pick up a remote control near me, and I used the thumbstick on my controller to operate a toy tank, driving it up a ramp, and then aiming at Luckey's tank, and pressing the trigger, and firing missiles at him.
He flipped a switch, and now gravity was gone: blocks floated up to asteroids. Garden gnomes drifted away. I threw a dodecahedron up, and it vanished toward the stars. Another flipped switch, and everything fell down again.
I learned fine motor skills: I picked up and fired a slingshot, used blaster guns to shoot targets out of the air, and threw a lot more things.
Then he shot me with a magic gun, and I became tiny, everything rising up around me. He helped me put giant virtual robot gloves on my virtual hands, and I started boxing with a Rockem-Sockem robot. I grew bigger again. I shrank him with a gun. We zapped our toy room into an ocean, where everything floated. We went back to antigravity, and everything floated away.
Eventually I left the magic toy room, and Luckey came out and spoke to me. It felt like we were together in some strange magic carnival, just us. And the controls of the Touch melted: being able to actually move my fingers, or use physical buttons, is a totally different experience than the more controller-like design of the Vive or PlayStation Move controllers.
It's a step towards dipping your hands into another reality.
According to Oculus, the Touch is still a work in progress: the goal is to allow as much freedom as possible for the fingers while still offering up physical controls. Haptics are in the controllers, allowing for more feedback: I forgot there were haptics at all. Then again, I started forgetting I was using a controller.
The Touch is a hybrid, and it took getting used to. I felt like I was in a type of physical therapy at first, learning to move and be comfortable. It took some getting used to, and knowing where my controls were without seeing...but it started making sense fast. I would have liked a better on-screen guide, like Vive offers with many of its VR experiences. But the Oculus Touch demo wasn't even a game, or an app, it was more a developer's testing demo.
It works with Xbox One...to a degree
Microsoft has announced Xbox One compatibility with Oculus Rift: Your Xbox One games will be able to stream onto the Rift via your PC. Windows 10 allows for system-to-system game streaming across devices, so this isn't all that surprising. Rift is, basically, another display. The Xbox One games won't be in VR, instead playing back on a screen in a virtual theater, much like watching movies in Oculus.
Could the Xbox end up offering up virtual reality by using the Rift directly? Nothing has been confirmed, but the Xbox is a Windows computer, in a sense, too. It's also not clear that the Xbox One would even have the horsepower to work with Oculus. Then again, Sony has found a way for the PlayStation 4 to run VR via Project Morpheus, so anything's possible.
Available early 2016
The most critical part of virtual reality is what you're going to actually do with it. Oculus, at least for now, is cementing itself as a PC gaming accessory. It's a place where high-end PC games can live, but where new ideas can emerge as well.
Oculus allows some basic motion in a room, but not full room-wandering freedom like the HTC Vive, which uses laser scanning boxes to track everything. The Rift is a smaller scale of motion freedom. Is it better than the Vive? I'd say the Oculus Touch controls are something that I've never experienced before. It's another step forward. Sure, you can't wander a whole room...but most people wouldn't have the floor space to do that anyway.
The Touch allows inputs that I'd been dreaming of since I first tried Rift. But it will be sold separately from the Rift, at an undisclosed price. What experiences become available for it, and how it transforms games after this, aren't clear. It's a smart idea to offer it separately, because who knows how long it'll take for developers to even understand how to make games for the Touch?
For now, all I know is this: Oculus works with my hands at last, and those magic controllers were well worth waiting for.