PREVIEW: The Oculus Rift

The success of the Rift is now out of Oculus' hands. Mark Zuckerberg’s $2 billion gamble on virtual reality now hinges on the whims of third party developers and hyped-up gamers.

Finally, the Oculus news we’ve all be waiting for. Earlier this week, the company’s CEO Brendan Iribe told the Dublin Web Summit that the company’s virtual reality headset is just “months” away from launch. Still no exact date, but hey, it’s better than nothing.

It’s good news given the snowballing hype the product has generated in the past couple of years. Despite being featured last year, the headset was still the talk of the town at this year’s PAX gaming convention in Melbourne.

At the best of times, the company’s stall had a queue two hours long. In fact, interest was so intense that at one point event organisers had to set up a separate queue for the Oculus Rift queue. Fans were then turned away when this second queue inevitably filled.

Luckily, Oculus wasn’t the only company to feature the headset. We ended up demoing the device at the stall of an New Zealand indie horror game called Phantasmal. Ironically, it’s being created by a company called EyeMobi. While they don’t develop games exclusively for the device, team lead Joe Chang admits the name is convenient if the Rift takes off. 

Phantasmal wasn’t designed for the Rift, but it felt like it should be. Using your head to move the game’s camera felt natural, and actually added another layer of difficulty to an already tough survival shooter game. The headset itself didn’t feel heavy or cumbersome and the game’s haunted mansion motif worked well with the immersive nature of the device. 

Despite common complaints to the contrary, my eyes didn’t strain nor did I feel sick while playing Rift on Phantasmal. But that may have had something to do with the game’s darker colour palate, which felt easier on the eye compared to my last Rift experience -- a bright virtual moon flight.

Motion sickness was deemed to be enough of a complaint for the Rift that other companies have partnered with Oculus to help rectify the issue. Our second Rift demo was with one of these products: Nvidia’s VR direct. They claim to reduce the likelihood of motion sickness by decreasing the latency between head movements and the visor’s screen. VR direct offered a starkly smoother Oculus experience than Phantasmal, however it just an interactive video demo so it was hard to draw a clear comparison between the two.

The Nvidia VR Direct demo however truly demonstrated the Oculus’ potential to engross players in another world. It was hard not to be riveted by the warzone demo I was viewing on the Rift, even with the roar and fury of the League of Legends super stage behind me.

These two experiences drilled home a key caveat to the potential success of the Rift: it really is out of Oculus’ hands. It’s now well and truly up to game producers and other third parties to create experiences using the device that meet expectations and propel the device mainstream.

This last point is pivotal, as Mark Zuckerberg’s $2 billion gamble on VR now hinges on a set of consumers that are notorious for hyping a product to insane proportions and then tearing it down just as quickly if it fails to deliver.

Technology Spectator will feature a more detailed review of the device when it is closer to launch. Oculus has not confirmed an Australian launch date for the device.