What is an Oculus Rift?
About five years ago, a guy named Palmer Luckey launched a Kickstarter campaign to build the next great Virtual Reality headset. The idea was to make a headset using modern technology to eliminate problems found with VR headsets in the past — specifically nausea and general discomfort when wearing the headset. Oculus Rift was pitched to the world as the future of VR, and it was going to accomplish this goal by being more immersive, more comfortable, and more capable than any other headset available at the time.
The Kickstarter was explosively successful, and over the following years, Oculus has been carefully refining their original design to be more capable and more featureful. There have been several developer versions of the hardware, but the first consumer version that you mostly hear about now is very different from the previous iterations.
Oculus Rift is the first of a new generation of virtual reality experiences that work hard to eliminate the problems found in previous generations, making it possible to set up in your home with ease.
What's new with Oculus Rift?
This update is Oculus' answer to the move from gamepads and remotes to motion controllers, and is a step in the direction of removing the need for an actual 2D monitor on your desktop. Rift Core 2.0 consists of two major new features: Dash and Home.
Dash is an overlay menu accessible from anywhere inside the Rift that lets you seamlessly switch between apps and change settings. It's designed for use with Touch controllers, and there's even a desktop viewer that transforms your 2D desktop into a living virtual workspace.
The new Oculus Home is now completely customizable, with everything from furniture to minigames to awards up for grabs. Avatars are now also completely customizable within the Rift, so you can really make something personal here that can be shared with your VR friends.
How is Oculus Rift better than normal gaming?
What makes gaming in Oculus Rift special is the ability to move your head and hands around and have that movement translate into the game world. For example, you're able to actually look up and glance at the rear-view mirror when driving a car, you can turn around to see what monster is creeping up behind you, and you can interact with virtual items, like guns and tennis rackets, with your hands. It's an experience that makes you feel like you're a part of the game, and that's something you can't ever get by looking at a computer monitor or television.
It's full immersion, and the motion tracking is advanced enough to make those movements feel real as you look around, dodge, reload a pistol, or even just stare at the ceiling of your favorite building.
What is inside the Oculus Rift head-mounted display?
The plastic casing holds a pair of displays that you view through a pair of custom-made lenses. Those lenses take the flat images on the screen and warp them to give the illusion of filling your field of view. When it all works together, the lenses and the displays create a feeling of depth, like you're looking into another world entirely.
On the outer shell, covered in a special fabric, several infrared sensors project light in every direction. This light is recorded by up to four sensors, which are placed in front of you and behind you. As long as the sensors can see those lights, the images in the headset will move as your head moves, furthering the feeling that you are somewhere else entirely.
What are Oculus Touch controllers and what is room-scale VR?
Originally, the Rift was a sit-and-play headset where you used the Oculus remote or an Xbox controller, but that all changed with the release of Oculus Touch motion controllers. Designed to fit snugly in your hand and sporting trigger, grip, joystick, and face buttons, these controllers also have hand presence, meaning they know when you're pointing or giving a thumbs up.
There is a hand-guard on the Touch controllers that doubles as a sensor band; the same infrared lights on the Rift head-mounted display are in the guard. They allow for precision tracking as long as your sensors can see the lights.
With these controllers in-hand and at least two sensors tracking your movement, you can stand up and move around in your VR space. This is known as room-scale VR, and it adds a lot to the experience. Now you can walk around an area, interacting with the Touch controllers. The whole thing takes the immersion level through the roof, and you'll find it hard to go back to Rift without the Touch controllers.
To help protect your belongings as well as your Touch controllers, a Guardian system can (and should!) be set up. You essentially grab on Touch controllers and walk around the perimeter of your VR space while holding down the trigger. When you return to where you started, the Oculus app will determine how large of an area you have to work with. While in the head-mounted display, you'll be warned if you approach the perimeter — no more putting hands through TVs!
Does this work on its own or do I have to plug it into something?
Oculus Rift needs a computer to run, and the recommended system requirements for that PC are significant. Those requirements include a video card equivalent to the NVIDIA GTX 1060 and 8GB of RAM. However, thanks to some clever software engineering and something called Asynchronous Spacewarp, the Oculus Rift's minimum system requirements come in pretty low, and PCs well below $1000 are suitable options.
There are some computers that can be easily upgraded to support Oculus Rift, but in many cases, a new PC or laptop will be less expensive than the time and money needed to upgrade. As for the Touch controllers, they connect wirelessly and run off of a single AA battery each.
What's it like to use?
Using this system is almost like playing any other video game, except you actually feel like you're inside of it. Being able to actually walk around, pick up items, solve puzzles, crouch, lie prone, or grip the wheel of a car is quite a thrill, and there's really nothing else like it (other than real life).
With the head-mounted display and the Touch controllers, it's full immersion, and the motion tracking is advanced enough to make those movements feel real. The library of games is large enough to provide enough experiences for those who prefer to Rift sitting down and for those who prefer it at room-scale.
With the Touch controllers also comes a small mount that lets you attach your controller to a real-world object. The prime example is the Rock Band VR guitar, but there are plenty more ways you can use the Touch controllers with other items.
This sounds uncomfortable
Oculus Rift was designed to be as comfortable as possible, but there's only so far that can go when wearing a plastic block on your face. The headset is designed to keep the weight off your nose, and as long as you don't wear glasses you can slide the headset on like a baseball cap.
For the most part, you'll know when it is time to take Oculus Rift off. Any kind of discomfort or eye strain is usually a good indicator that it's time to take a break. Nausea in the VR headsets of old was largely the result of something called cue correction. In a nutshell, your brain interpreted a certain type of motion from your eyes but your body wasn't experiencing the same motion signals. That confusion frequently lead to nausea, which is why Oculus worked so hard to make sure head tracking in this headset was so precise.
Since your head and hand movements sync up almost perfectly with what you're seeing in the headset, there are far fewer opportunities for cue correction to be an issue. That doesn't mean nausea is impossible, but it is significantly less likely in this headset and there are very few reports of nausea as a result.
But is it safe for kids?
Oculus makes it very clear in their health and safety information that this headset should not be worn by anyone under the age of 13. According to Oculus, the headset is not sized for children and can lead to complications with visual development as a result.
Beyond age 13, the same rules apply. Take the headset off when you start to feel uncomfortable.
What kind of games are there?
Developers of every kind have been working on games for Oculus Rift. There are racing games, shooting games, sports games, role-playing games, and even some fun adventure games that take advantage of transporting you somewhere else just to look around and solve puzzles.
If you're used to buying game consoles like the Xbox or PlayStation, you're used to seeing big names associated with the console at launch to help encourage you to buy a healthy selection of games to get started. Oculus has worked with many different companies to fill their store with some incredible games, and the entire library now consists of hundreds of titles, including those that work with Touch and those that do not.
Oculus has implemented an Early Access section where developers can publish unfinished games and receive feedback from players. This gives them a boost to funds to help finish the game, and also some valuable tips on what exactly needs to be done. There's also a Gallery apps section in the store that is a less-filtered collection of games and experiences that are still often a lot of fun.
On top of the Oculus Store, there are plenty more titles available through SteamVR, which is compatible with the Oculus Rift.
- See our roundups of the best games Oculus Rift has to offer!
- Oculus has put an end to the "no games for VR" argument
Is there anything other than games?
There are a few things you can do that don't involve shooting spaceships or dodging cave monsters. Oculus supports several 360-degree video services to get a high-resolution look at the environments captured with those special cameras. The big push with these experiences is looking at the whole world, and not just a tiny prepared window.
You can also enjoy some unique desktop experiences, like the ability to turn your computer into a floating workstation with several screens to look at all at once. Your headset becomes your computer, and you can control it in some really unique ways.
So yeah, there's a lot more than just games here.
OK, the Oculus Rift sounds awesome. How do I get one?
Oculus Rift is widely available to order and in fact has recently been lowered in price. Grab the headset and Touch controllers with two sensors for about $400. For true room-scale Rifting, you'll also need to pick up a third sensor.
- See at Amazon | Oculus Rift Touch bundle
- See at Amazon | Oculus Touch motion controllers
- See at Amazon | Oculus sensor
Updated December 28, 2017: We've refreshed this article to ensure you're still getting up-to-date information about the Oculus Rift.