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Hands on: Oculus Rift VR Headset

Holodeck in a headset (also, best demo at CES by far).

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

LAS VEGAS--Not only was this the coolest thing I saw at CES, but it's possibly the coolest thing I've seen ever. As someone who has always been interested in the idea of VR headsets, and always heartbreakingly let down by the reality of VR headsets, I admit I took a rare (for me) CES meeting on a lark. I had heard something about their successful Kickstarter, but honestly, I figured it would just be more of the same.

I was wrong. Not sure I've ever been more wrong. Even in this hand-built prototype stage, the Rift is amazing.

There's a scene in "The Matrix," where Neo first jacks into Matrix after leaving it via the red pill. The screen gets all warpy, and zooooom abruptly he's standing somewhere else. It's not much of an exaggeration to say this is what it's like putting on the Oculus Rift. The lenses, holding a distorted promise of what lies beyond, rise towards your face. At the same time the mask blocks out visual reality, the virtual one comes into focus...

Suddenly, I was standing in a Medieval square. Armored knights stood nearby. Joseph Chen, Oculus' Senior Product Manager, hands me a gamepad. This is bizarre, since it passes invisibly (to me) in the real world, to touch my hands in the real world, all the while I'm looking at a fruit stand and some guy in black armor. I look around, the view tracking my movements so precisely, that it feels perfectly natural. I walk past another food stall, naturally looking down as I pass. I take in the town as I would in real life, checking out architecture, corners, scenic vistas.

Game switch. The familiar sights and sounds of Unreal Tournament. Joseph tells me it takes most people 3 minutes or so to get the hang of it. It takes me less than 1. I mention this because I am boasting. Direction and strafing are done with the gamepad. But aiming... oh the aiming. Look and shoot. Not point and shoot. The huge advantage mouse-and-keyboard users have over gamepad wielding FPS players comes down to the order of magnitude better precision possible with a mouse over a gamepad. The Rift seems a level beyond the mouse. It goes deeper, past reflexes and to some level of instinct. Like "CRAP, that thing is headed for my FACE" instinct.

The reason why the Rift is so good, and why it's so much better than everything that came before, is the speed, accuracy, and realism of the tracking. This is why raw specs don't do it justice. Specs are what old VR systems used to justify their crappy tracking. You could stick a B&W TV in the Rift headset and the experience would still be better than every VR attempt that came before.

So early, so good

And that's the genius of the Rift. They're using off-the-shelf parts. Thanks to the iPhone, accelerometers cost a tiny fraction of what they used to be. Same with small high-resolution LCD screens.

I was figuring I'd pay about $1,000 for a consumer version, and be happy about it. Then I found out they're aiming for $300. Take my money.

Bottom line
I guess what it comes down to is this: the Oculus Rift is the virtual reality we've been promised since the dawn of video gaming, and really, the early days of science fiction. It leaps past all other attempts at the technology and moves into the realm of total immersion. The feeling is so natural that it's effortless to suspend disbelief that you are standing in that place, in that world. And that's with the prototype's crappy LCD screen and early pre-pre-preproduction software and drivers.

When this thing finally ships, with a better screen (can a boy dream for OLED?), and a bunch of software available, it could be a radical shift in gaming and who knows what else. If this sounds at all interesting to you, definitely go check these guys out: