Oculus Rift review, revisited: The dream's real now
Commentary: Looking back at 2016 from 2021, and the VR headset that kicked off a whole universe of possibilities.
Scott SteinEditor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
ExpertiseVR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tabletsCredentials
Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
My eyes aren't here anymore. They're somewhere else. Once the eyepiece is over my face, I'm gone. Like looking through a window into another world.
It's a city that's in front of me. Trees sway gently. I know they're not real, but I look closely at them. I lift my head, I see sky. Blue like you'd rarely really see. I look down. My legs are gone. I see wings. And a beak.
I wrote that five years ago, to try to explain a VR headset that was arriving with promises almost impossible to conceive. The Oculus Rift, arriving at the end of March 2016, felt like a dream coming alive. Partially.
VR had shown its possibilities for years before. In phone headsets, like the Samsung Gear VR. In little folding boxes like the Google Cardboard that turned your iPhone and Android phone into a makeshift VR headset. And peppered across CESes, E3s, conferences in Barcelona. So many demos. The entire last decade for me was full of headsets and wearables. But Oculus threaded itself through almost all of it.
The little jaunts on holodecks, carefully prepared by on-site staff, with special blank rooms laid out just right -- these little visits were incredible pieces of tech theater. They became the things I remembered most, and looked forward to most. From 2013 to 2016, I saw VR in iterations all over the place. And the best experiences were simply stunning. CNET's Dan Ackerman tried the Oculus Rift way back in 2012. My first Oculus Rift demo I ever had, after that, will stick with me my whole life.
In Las Vegas, January 2013 at CES, a hotel suite was waiting for me, and a chair and a table beckoned with a PC and a headset. That was it. All I did was put it on and look around a medieval village that I seemed to glide through. That's all I remember, at least. It was enough. Other colleagues tried it too (check out Geoffrey Morrison's story). We were all excited to dive in.
Another demo in 2015 (again, at CES) let me walk around a bit, on a little square mat. It was like a mini world. I kneeled, leaned, got disoriented. But 2015 had a lot of VR announcements coming out of the woodwork. In March, Valve and HTC showed an even more expansive VR demo on the Vive in Barcelona (and with Portal references, too).
Then, at a wild E3 that also had the first demos of Sony's PlayStation VR headset and Microsoft's HoloLens, Oculus reupped with another Rift demo, this time letting me play with virtual objects using my hands and these wild controllers called the Oculus Touch, while someone else in another room guided me through, in VR. The person I tried the demo with? Oculus founder Palmer Luckey.
The hype was pretty massive. What could 2016 do to top it?
I'm looking back because the Oculus Rift is five years old, and we're now in a year when virtual and augmented reality look poised to vault in a lot of different directions at once. Apple headset? Facebook neural wristbands? Pokemon Go glasses? Snapchat and Qualcomm and Microsoft and so many companies at once, all pushing forward. And meanwhile, the Oculus Quest 2 is my little everyday immersive home gadget that reminds me how far things have come since 2016.
But back in 2016, we said, "Companies from Facebook to Google to Microsoft know that VR is likely the next step up from phones, tablets and computer screens. Now, they're all jockeying to dominate the next big computing platform." In that sense, things are very much still the same.
Our 2016 review of the Rift, written by Sean Hollister and me, had a bold design (lost to time, sadly, but the text at least is preserved in that link), and split the idea of "Dream" versus "Reality" apart. That's because the dream of VR didn't match the reality of what was being delivered at that moment.
The Oculus Rift didn't arrive in finished form. The $600 original retail box only had the headset, one camera sensor-on-a-stick that needed to be plugged into a PC and... an Xbox controller. Oculus actually included the official Xbox One controller in-box, because those wild Touch controllers weren't ready yet. They arrived in December, for an extra $200 (and another camera stand). The total all-in cost was $800, plus you needed a gaming PC with compatible graphics cards.
Plugging it in and snaking those camera sensors to your PC meant that you needed a dedicated "PC VR zone" in your home, something preferably around 5 feet square. It didn't feel like something I'd be sharing with a lot of people.
The best VR holodeck experience at that time wasn't the Oculus Rift, it was the HTC Vive. The Vive provided the whole package, a full-room walkaround experience. The Vive felt like that crazy future right now, with areas so large I could wander around and forget where I was. Except, of course, for that giant cable connecting me to the PC.
On the flip side, there were plenty of cheap and easy VR goggles for phones by then that could turn Samsung and Android phones (or iPhones, if you used Google Cardboard, which was basically free) into decent enough little 3D novelties. That was the stuff I reached for when I wanted to show my family a cool 360-degree video, or a weird VR game. PC VR was for me, whenever I had patience to boot it up.
It took years for Oculus to catch up to that freedom with in-headset camera-based tracking on the Oculus Rift S, and eventually a fully untethered standalone Oculus Quest in 2019, a device that would have blown me away if I had seen it in 2016. It still amazes me now.
It's a dream I've had since I was a child, that I've read about in science fiction books. To cast myself somewhere else. To open a magic door. It's the closest I've been to that dream.
As I spend more time here, I lose track of where the rest of my real body is.
The original Oculus Rift review was divided into five sections: The Eyes, The Hands, The Room, The Doors, The Future. For the most part, these corresponded to the different parts of what make up a VR experience. The visuals (displays), hand interfaces, room tracking, software and then a conclusion looking at what comes next.
The divisions of those sections ended up evolving into the CNET subcategories which we used to review VR and AR headsets after that, which is still a work in progress. How do we consider "immersiveness," for instance? Or the quality of a display? In VR, one well-made piece of sensory input can make up for others. A crisp sound that feels like it's speaking to you can make a confusing interface make sense. Clever animations can be better than hyperreal graphics.
I remember spending an entire day playing Oculus games with Sean before the Rift launch, at an event in San Francisco where we felt woozy and happy and tired. Our faces had lines on them, marking where the headsets touched our faces. We dipped in and out of dozens of worlds, drifted from room to room. We got excited about the possibilities. We saw the future science-fiction dreams coming alive. But beyond some "wow" moments, how would it play out as a home device? We still had no idea.
I look at the Oculus Quest 2 compared to the Rift, and I see a completely different type of device. It's far less expensive, and it doesn't need a PC. It has similar controllers to the Rift's Touch ones, but then the similarities end. The Quest has hand tracking, and instantly starts up. I can use it for fitness. It launches quick social meetings with friends. It reminds me more of a prototype for the glasses of tomorrow: something you throw on fast and dive into. Like the Microsoft HoloLens, but for play and home. I don't spend hours in it at a time, but I drop in for lots of small sessions. It sits near me during the day more often than I'd ever expect.
Sometimes I want to stay in one place. Sometimes I want to leave. Sometimes I want to talk to people. Sometimes I don't want to be seen. Dozens of theater performances. Or games. Or films. Or experiences. Or dreams. One at a time, like experiential channel-surfing. How many doors can I go through before I feel like I should take a break?
When the Rift Touch controllers arrived, we gave a more normal, straightforward review of the whole package. Verdict: really good, mostly for those controllers, but not necessarily the best (the Vive felt more like a full holodeck) and crazy expensive.
"What I really want is VR that's as affordable as the PSVR, with the room-tracking of the Vive and Oculus Touch controllers," I said back then. I got a lot more than that. The totally self-contained Quest and what it represents feel more like the doorway to the untethered reality-blending I dreamed about back in 2016... and before.
I also said then, "Oculus used to be the one singular name in VR. Now it isn't. The competition is growing, and the Rift headset is a high-quality player in a fast, ever-moving game." While there's nothing else like the Quest 2 right now, there are lots of other players moving in fast. And that upcoming future still makes me think of how I dreamed things would be in 2016, a dream that's still not entirely here, but it's a lot closer than ever. And the world around VR has gotten muddled and strange, too: AI-generated art, deepfakes, NFTs, meme warfare, gaming metaverses, instant social apps everywhere. The virtual is everywhere, now. The hardware just needs to catch up.
In these glasses. Just glasses. I can open them up, or close them down. Let the real world in, or close it out. Allow the dreams to creep in just a bit, or all the way. In virtual reality, you can't see the wires. So why do they have to exist at all? In the real world, it can all disappear. Eventually, even the real world will seem like a dream. A blend, of the real world and the other. I can't even see the tech anymore. There are so many places to go, things to pick from. More experiences than stars in the sky. I'll never try them all. Just like regular life. But at least it knows what I like. A small flick of my fingers, a blink of my eyes, and I'm gone.