Hands on with the Oculus Rift HD

We took a very immersive look at the high-definition prototype of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.

Nic Healey Senior Editor / Australia
Nic Healey is a Senior Editor with CNET, based in the Australia office. His passions include bourbon, video games and boring strangers with photos of his cat.
Nic Healey
3 min read

When the Oculus team put their project for a VR headset on Kickstarter last year, they were hoping for US$250,000 to get development underway.

(Credit: CNET Australia)

They ended up closing at a staggering US$2.4m with 9522 backers pledging their support for the device.

Since then, they've not only delivered the Oculus Rift dev kit to backers, they've started selling it for US$300 to development community who missed the Kickstarter.

But the team isn't just resting on its laurels, as Nate Mitchell, VP of Product for Oculus told us at PAX Australia — it sees the Rift as very much an ongoing project.

To this end, the Oculus team was offering limited demos with the new Oculus Rift HD prototype while at the show in Melbourne.

Early hands on impressions with the original Oculus Rift dev kit tended to be quite positive, but most made note of the fact the headset had a fairly low resolution.

That model had a 1200x800 screen that, because it was split between your eyes, worked out to 640x800 for each eye.

The new HD prototype is now featuring 1080p resolution and can run at 60fps. Mitchell says the explosion in HD smartphone screens along with improvement in the sensors that are being packed into mobile devices has been a boon for the Oculus Rift team.

When it comes to finally trying out the Rift HD, it's incredible.

It's a multi-part demo, which first puts me in front of the entry way to an enormous castle. It's snowing and I'm able to look around, with the head-tracking feeling seamless. The animation is smooth — even the individual snowflakes look great.

From there I'm "teleported" inside to another part of the castle, where volcanic lava drifts past me. The light effects are great and this is reinforced when I find myself in the Orrery, where a rotating map of a solar system casts different light effects around the room, each planet and moon clearer rendered to appear as a different material to the next.

The headset is surprisingly lightweight — noticeable, but not uncomfortable, at least for the short time of the demo. As noted before, the headtracking is smooth as I look around and there's an urge to reach out a hand, even though you know it won't appear in the simulation.

For the penultimate part of the demo, I'm handed a controller and put back on a castle wall, looking up at a volcano. I can fly, essentially, using the controller to move in the direction I'm looking. It's an odd sensation: soar upwards toward the volcano's peak with my head tilted almost directly up.

One of the triggers on the controller fires a ball of ice — just a demo of the particle effects, as the missile bounces around leaving a comet-like trail behind it.

PAX Australia attendees try the SD Rift at the Alienware booth.(Credit: Nic Healey/CNET Australia)

Finally, I'm shown something a little unexpected — the Man of Steel trailer, in a movie theatre. I'm seated towards the back. I can see rows of red seats in ahead of of me, with the screen at the front. When I look over my shoulder, there's the light of the projector shining in the darkness.

It's clearly a computer animation. It's also excellent. It's a simple, yet effective example of how the Oculus Rift can work outside of a gaming context.

If there's one slightly discordant note, it's the sweat I feel when I take off the Oculus Rift. It's a little hot under there.

Mitchell says that a lot of what the team are working on are refinements for the comfort of the device.

"Ergonomics is important for us and we want to really make sure that heat is kept under-control. We'd also like to see the unit drop down to under 250g if we can."

The Oculus Rift isn't ready for a commercial release just yet — there still needs to be a clear business model in place for consumers. But the HD prototype certainly feels like that date can't be far around the corner.

All around PAX, the original Oculus dev kits feature on a variety of stands, with people queuing for a chance to finally experience the virtual reality we've been promised by fiction and movies — people are walking away smiling and clearly delighted.

Inside the Oculus Rift meeting room, the team is proving that this is, really, just the beginning of something truly big.