It’s What’s Inside That Counts
The CV1 sees a significant set of upgrades over its predecessors. The one that many would deem the more important of which is probably the screen. Previously the DK1 had a 640 x 800 per eye screen res, with a refresh rate of 60hz. While the DK2 ran with 690 x 1080 per eye at up to 75Hz refresh rate. The CV1 boasts 1080 x 1200 per eye at 90hz. What this means is that you should see smoother visuals with fewer visible pixels, the 90hz is important, since according to Oculus, low refresh rates can contribute to the nausea users will feel when moving. The improved pixel density provided by the higher screen resolution means pixels should be less noticeable when playing. While I can attest to the fact they are visible, you do tend to forget they are there after a while unless looking for them. Ultimately the screen is mere inches from your face though so this really isn’t surprising. I suspect the only way to not see pixels at this proximity is to use 4K panels and since they lack the needed refresh rates currently and GPU horse power is still only just catching up to this level of screen resolution it may be a way off before 4K becomes the norm for VR.
Like the previous versions of the Rift, the CV1 uses Fresnel lenses, with a subtle curvature to them – these lenses are in use due to needing to provide the user a short focal length for the display, the curvature is a clever move by Oculus, since this means you can adjust focus based on the position of the lens, simply moving the headset higher or lower on your face, or even adjusting the angle it sits at will change the focus of the lenses which can help increase overall comfort levels. This is why unlike the CV1s predecessors no additional lenses need to be shipped with the headset, since the functionality they performed is now built into the headset itself. Having read up on the older headsets over the last few years, as well as talking to a few people I know who owned them, I was anticipating significant levels of screen door effect and while it’s still there, it’s not so bad that I can’t ignore it when gaming, much like the slightly visible pixels, this all just fades to the background when in an actual game and concentrating on game play. One thing that is more obvious however are the God-Rays this is particularly bad in darkened scenes, such as the launch tubes used in Eve Valkyrie, where the ship and tube lighting are dimmed or off prior to launch, leaving just the lighting from the control console to spill out. When in a well-lit scene, while still an issue it becomes less noticeable.
Beyond the display, we have the headphones. As mentioned these sound far better than I anticipated and certainly have remained in use, rather than being removed and thrown into the box in favour of my normal headphones. Of course, audio is very much down to personal preference, but I believe you won’t go far wrong just leaving the headphones on the Rift. The headphones are on ear, and sit fairly comfortably with no real pressure, since they are kept in place by the Rift itself. The fact they are attached to the rift also means you won’t be struggling to put on a separate set of headphones after donning the Rift, something I can imagine being pretty difficult to do while effectively blind. Despite the fact that the headphones are on ear, they actually do a decent job of isolating you from surrounding ambient noise, without having to push the volume levels too high, while they will never be able to take on over ear or sound isolating affairs in this regard, it’s a nice touch that does help immerse you into the in game environment. Sound wise, the drivers in use seem to be pretty neutral overall, though you aren’t going to be using them for listening to music, they do seem to be tuned to not add any character, meaning you should get the audio as close to as it is in the game as is possible, with no added frequencies to interfere with what the audio designers intended things to sound like.
Audio and Visuals aside, the rift include a fairly wide gamut of sensors and other gubbins which are all part of the secret sauce that make VR so compelling. According to iFixit’s tear down of the device there is actually a surprising amount of tech included internally, movement is picked up by a combination of the Inertial Sensors and the Camera which uses the hidden infrared LEDs to help track the headset in 3D space. Because of this combination movement tracking is precise, accurate and fast, all of which are vital to getting the experience right and immersing the player in a game. Any mess up here would instantly break the illusion and indeed, moving out of the cameras field of view shows this since lateral movement stops being tracked until the camera can ‘see’ you again.
Overall the hardware really comes together to make the rift a very compelling and believable experience. So, we know how it looks and how it works, but how is it to use? Honestly as much of a cliché as this is to say, it’s something that’s hard to describe beyond saying you need to try it yourself to understand. The rift can transport you to pretty much any environment, any location. Your surroundings in the headset are ‘real’ enough that its often hard to resist the urge to reach out and touch them the first time you wear it. As a first port of call I tried the ‘Welcome to Oculus’ video that is included with the software, a none interactive affair that shows of the level of presence the device can give you. From being sat in a small canoe, to being in the middle of a basketball game as Shaq runs to the basket, through to simply floating in space every scene shown makes you feel as though you are there. Events are unfolding all around you and it takes a few seconds to realise that this isn’t a normal eyes front static experience that you are used to from watching videos. As an introductory piece the Welcome to Oculus video does an amazing job, with no real feeling of discomfort and a fully immersive experience.
When it comes to gameplay however, things get a mite more interesting. Oculus have wisely set comfort, or rather discomfort levels for any title on offer in the Oculus store with ratings varying between comfortable, moderate and intense. As you can expect mild titles tend to be fairly easy going affairs, often consisting of videos or pre-rendered scenes that the player sits back and just watches unfold, as well as a few less movement orientated games such as Keep talking and Nobody Explodes. Moderate titles tend towards more traditional games, but with a slow pace or limited movement, such as InCell, Halcyon, Lucky’s Tale and others. Finally, titles that fall into the Intense bracket are very much fast paced, action orientated affairs like Eve Valkyrie.
One of the biggest challenges faced by VR is user comfort, while the tech has been pushed to the point where a lot of it can be mitigated it can’t completely be ruled out, so Oculus VR’s decision to include comfort ratings was a wise one. The mainstay of the issue here is simply one of movement, in its default iteration, the Oculus is a sit down affair, the problem is many games involve movement and it’s this conflict between what your eyes see and what your body feels that can cause discomfort when playing games in the Rift. Some developers have taken steps to mitigate this, such as with Psytek Games Crystal Rift, where you can set ‘stepping’ to character movement. This stepping moves you from the normally smooth movement you are used to in most games to a jump based approach. The steps can be set with varying levels between one and four which vary the level of comfort greatly. While on paper this jump based movement system seems to break the immersive nature of the rift, when playing it feels surprisingly natural and causes little to no break in how ‘in’ the game world you actually feel. I personally found games where your player character was sat stationary in a vehicle, such as Project Cars or Elite Dangerous to be the easier to contend with comfort wise, since the surrounding vehicle is the one moving rather than your body, lending itself to that sense of trickery needed to convince you that you are moving without moving. Conversely, Eve Valkyrie still manages to make me feel fairly unsteady after a short while of gameplay, something I put down to the sheer proximity of the environment and how the ship moves around it.
Of course user comfort is specific to the individual and not everyone will have problems with this. Indeed, a couple of people who demoed my headset felt no discomfort at all, even when playing titles that I felt were fairly gut wrenching, interestingly both people who had zero issues were both the youngest and oldest to try the headset.
From playing around with the Rift and the Oculus Touch controllers at Gamescom this year, I do wonder how much of the nausea is caused by the fact that while you have a feeling of presence in the game world, this isn’t true of your other limbs. I got a chance to play The Climb using the Oculus Touch and honestly felt minimal nausea when doing so, considering I don’t have a head for heights and combined with the fact I get nauseous when playing games in the rift, it does lend support to this theory, since for me, playing the same game with the Xbox One controller is a recipe for disaster, with me needing to take lots of long breaks after only a short amount of time in game. This is something I will be revisiting when we get our hands on a set of Oculus Touch controllers to see just how big an impact this disconnect makes in other games.
Of course, we can’t talk about games without mentioning the software, which segues us nicely to
The Oculus Storefront! While you can set the Rift to work with titles from any source via its software config, including games and software from Steam, Oculus have created their own curated store front for the rift, which as mentioned separates titles into differing levels of comfort. I’m personally not a fan of having to have my details stored in a multitude of places to access content, which is why I tend to limit my exposure to platforms like Ubisoft’s Uplay and EA’s Origin where I can. It doesn’t help matters when the store front in question has been surrounded by controversy, including reports of paying off devs for exclusivity deals and other tactics which have generally been frowned upon by the community. All of this said, while I do object to having multiple store fronts I do invariably end up using them and can attest to the fact that it’s about as unobtrusive as these things can be, with purchases happening relatively fast, software downloads being relatively nippy and overall being a fairly painless experience. They even have periodic sales, which have very much become a staple of a PC gamer’s expectations.
- An utterly immersive experience
- Nicely designed headset with great build quality
- An increasing number of supporting titles
- VR is something you really need to experience to 'get' which may make this a hard sell
- Potential for nausea when gaming
- An expensive peripheral that needs an expensive computer to run it