After three years and countless hype cycles, the Oculus Rift, perhaps the best-known virtual reality headset, is days away from becoming a reality. And yet, we're still learning new things about how it works and how it feels to use it. We got a chance to spend a full day with the final version of the Rift, plus the coming-later-this-year Touch controllers and all the launch games.
What does it feel like to be immersed that long? Well, there were surprises.
Oculus Rift: The games (pictures)See all photos
We couldn't try everything...and too much VR at once can be dizzying
Oculus had 41 games available to play at its pre-launch demo event in San Francisco, but we only saw about half of those. Our schedule had us seeing about one every half hour. It was a ton of games, but Oculus' event also had a deliberate pace and an extremely spaced-out, serene tone complete with frequent breaks. It's probably no accident. Seeing too much VR too fast can cause fatigue, and many VR experiences have their own rhythm.
The best things we saw worked with the Oculus Touch, which isn't coming out right now
The Touch is the Rift's answer to how to move your hands in space and grab things. The clever controllers, however, won't be available along with the Rift. No release date has been given. It's a shame, because the very best things we saw take advantage of it. Like Fantastic Contraption, where you can build your own objects in a day-glo sandbox. Or VR Sports, which lets you throw virtual footballs and nail imaginary 3-pointers. Without Touch, most of the other Oculus games feel a little more like familiar games that have been enhanced with wrap-around virtual graphics.
You can wander a room with the Rift, and it sometimes works as well as the Vive
The HTC Vive has a room-scale holodeck-like way of letting you walk anywhere (within reason), but the Rift can do something similar...once the Touch comes out. A second camera sensor will be used for Touch games: it won't just let the Touch controllers be motion-trackable, it also lets you walk around the room a bit. Games such as Fantastic Contraption let us walk around and bend down to pick up objects, and in a lot of ways it comes close to the magic that the Vive offers.
You probably won't get motion sickness -- but it's still possible
We tried some seriously intense games, such as Eve: Valkyrie, which throws you into a tilting, rolling, looping starship with multi-axis movement. And we didn't get sick. But other games threw us for a loop. One of us got ill during the speed-racing game RadialG. For another of us, it happened during the slow-paced, claustrophobic astronaut simulation Adr1ft. Sometimes it's game design. Other times, it feels like the controls: some ported Rift games that use the Xbox controller to move around made us feel really woozy, too. Oculus rated its games by intensity in our game-day guide; you might find your comfort zone for VR varies.
Oculus focused completely on games this time
The Rift will have ways of playing social apps, will stream and play 360-degree videos, and will have an interface similar to that of the phone-based Gear VR. But those non-game apps weren't available to try on game day...just the games. That was by design, but it makes us wonder how much of the Rift's Day One software will mostly just be about gaming. Later on, when the more interactive Touch controllers hit, that could change.
You won't have to pay $60 per game
After investing in a $600 headset, not to mention pricey new components for a gaming PC, you might be dreading having to pay Xbox and PlayStation prices (typically $60 a pop) to build up a library of games. Thankfully, it turns out that won't always be the case: While $60 titles do exist -- Elite: Dangerous and EVE: Valkyrie are two of them -- there's a healthy selection of titles for $10, $15 and $20 each, and a $50 tier as well. Free-to-play games such as the Hearthstone-esque Dragon Front also exist.
Just be aware that VR experiences skew a bit shorter than Xbox or PlayStation games -- we heard a couple developers quote a 4 to 6 hour playtime.
We played multiplayer games, and they were pretty good
One way to make a VR game feel fresh is to play it with friends. The Oculus Rift will let you do that, too: Eve: Valkyrie and Eagle Flight each let us shoot each other out of the sky in their online multiplayer modes, and Dead & Buried (which requires the Oculus Touch motion controllers) even includes audio chat in its two-on-two saloon shootout. Dragon Front will let you pit your magic card deck against others, too.
But each player will need their headset and their own PC -- you can't just plug two Rifts into a single gaming rig and expect to get it working.
Don't expect to play with friends who own different VR headsets
Even though both the Oculus Rift and rival HTC Vive are technically running on top of the same Windows operating system, that doesn't necessarily mean you can buy a game for one headset and expect it to work with the other. According to Oculus, each headset talks to the PC in a different way. What's more, people playing games on the Oculus platform shouldn't expect to interact with their friends playing games on Steam.
Much like Microsoft's Xbox Live and Sony's PlayStation Network each have their own friends lists and separate servers for online multiplayer, so too will Oculus and Steam, so you won't be able to play Oculus games against your friends with the Vive unless game developers set up their own servers and online matchmaking. That said, titles like that may exist. Tubular track racer RadialG is planning to offer cross-platform multiplayer using its own servers, and we've heard that Eve: Valkyrie might let Oculus Rift players connect with PlayStation VR ones.
Disclosure: The wife of co-author Sean Hollister works at Facebook, owner of Oculus VR, as a business-to-business video producer.