The good: Beautiful, immersive graphics; smooth performance; good selection of games and apps
The bad: Expensive; requires a powerful PC
Who should buy it: Gamers who have a beefy PC
After more-than-mild hesitation, I mustered the courage to leap forward and thrust myself off a steep grassy ledge. I could only hope I would land safely on the other side. Hope because, anywhere else, such a jump would surely result in a fatality. But in the lush, quirky universe of Windlands the breeze that continuously rolls across the game's colorful landscape pushed me along unharmed. Some 20 minutes later, I found myself in another perplexing situation: stranded in outer space, weightless and running out of oxygen. Not long after, I was guiding an amiable fox on a quest for gold coins.
I experienced all of this after donning the Oculus Rift, the much-written about, much-anticipated virtual reality headset that began shipping to customers March 28. The Rift, which started as a Kickstarter campaign more than three years ago, has been one of the tech industry's most eagerly anticipated product launches. (In 2014, Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion, citing virtual reality's potential to change various aspects of daily life.) The Rift, along with forthcoming headsets from HTC and Sony, promises to bring virtual reality (VR) into the mainstream. Now, consumers who have $600—and a capable PC—can finally buy one and experience it for themselves.
Over the course of a week using the Rift, I found that experience beguiling and thrilling at times, uncomfortable and awkward at others. Overall, entering the Rift is expensive, unnatural, and utterly addicting. Virtual reality is often talked about as a revolution, a paradigm shift, a really, really big deal. Using Oculus Rift proves this kind of talk isn't hype.
Before diving into virtual reality's imaginary worlds, you'll have to become familiar with the hardware—and a lot of it. When you order a Rift, Oculus sends the headset, a camera sensor, an Oculus Remote, an Xbox One controller, and plenty of cables to connect it all. Everything comes neatly packaged in a nice box with a premium feel. Because Oculus software requires a significant amount of processing power to generate virtual experiences that are immersive and lag-free, you'll also need a beefy PC. Alienware, Asus, and Dell sell Oculus-ready computers that meet the Rift's specifications. For our review, Oculus sent an Asus ROG G20 PC with an NVIDIA graphics card, a very capable gaming machine that runs about $1,000.
Setup is simple thanks to a well-made tutorial that takes you through plugging every thing in and making sure the hardware is correctly configured. Opening a box with this much stuff could be overwhelming to some; luckily Oculus seems to have taken this into account and made the process painless. Software for the Rift is downloaded from Oculus' proprietary store, which can be used on your desktop or within the headset. On your PC, the store is clean and straightforward; in the headset, you're transported to a slick virtual home that provides all the same functionality.
There is nothing subtle about the Rift, physically or virtually. Between the hulking machine we needed to power it and the jumble of wires required to keep the system connected, our setup occupied most of a conference room table. When wearing the Rift, it's very obvious to everybody else that you're mentally (and fashionably) in a different place. The bewildered expressions and occasional barks of joy of my colleagues and I as we tried the Rift attracted inquisitive stares and frequent questions throughout the office.
By nature, a device like the Rift forces us out of our comfort zone. (Not literally, the headset itself is quite light and comfortable enough to wear for long stretches of time.) The headset—which is compact but significantly larger than a pair of glasses—is unlike anything you'll have worn regularly. This can take some getting used to.
Even basic tasks like adjusting the eyewear to fit comfortably and toggling the focus feels a bit unnatural at first, despite the fact that Oculus has made both of these things very simple to do. The straps along the top and the side of the helmet are held together with velcro, making it easy to adjust for a comfortable fit. But, put bluntly, this is not a product you're going to fully understand until you spend some time with it.
Once you do, any apprehension quickly trails off. When you're inside the Rift, looking around feels about as natural as it does in reality. There's no latency between where your head moves and the images that appear before you. It feels fluid, vivid, and ultra realistic.
Experiences and games for the Rift achieve this effect in different ways. Some just expand the sense of atmosphere so that it completely envelops you, allowing you to play games or view content from a perspective you've never been able to before. Other Rift adventures trick your body into believing it's actually moving—falling off a cliff, soaring through the sky, or zooming down a racetrack.
Windlands does the latter exceptionally well. Drifting around the scenery, swinging from trees, and occasionally plummeting after missing my target brought about a pit in my stomach that I usually only experience on theme park rides. I became so engrossed that my body was facing a completely different direction when I took the headset off, and I hadn't even noticed. The racing game Radical G evokes a similar sensation: you can literally feel the change in speed when your vehicle hits a boost or falls off its track.
But not every Oculus experience invokes this type of bodily response. In fact, many don't on purpose. Farlands, for example, doesn't impress with daredevil stomach-twisting stunts. Rather, it rewards player with otherworldly terrain that is just as breathtaking as it is dynamic. Satisfaction in Farlands comes from exploration and befriending new creatures, which approach you timidly and curiously.
The Rift isn't just for games, either. The most enchanting moment I experienced was during a free short film called The Rose and I. As the viewer, you're teleported to a whimsical solar system where you watch the protagonist befriend the only other living being on its planet: a rose. Like its source material The Little Prince, it's a touching story about companionship that unfolds so intimately it feels like you could reach out and touch the tiny planet where it takes place. The narrative unfolds in front of a gorgeous starlit backdrop that's just as entertaining to experience as the story itself. Lost, another short, is equally immersive.
The Rift is brand new, but it already offers a wide-ranging library of experiences: games of different genres, short films, virtual tours, videos and photographs. One category that will take longer to develop, however, is social apps. After buying Oculus, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg described the potential he sees for virtual reality: "By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures."
That vision is likely very far off if it ever comes to fruition. Today, virtual reality is still an isolating experience. While I'm blasting off in a jet pack or exploring Machu Picchu, my coworkers (or your family) would be hard-pressed to know what wonders I am feeling. Because you have to experience virtual reality yourself, it's difficult to share the excitement in a group. Virtual reality is sure to evoke many different emotions. Loneliness is one of them.
Developers are already finding ways to make VR games more social. Puzzle game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is one sterling example, since it requires the person wearing the headset to interact with others in order to defuse a bomb. To deactivate the explosive, you must correctly complete a series of tasks, such as snipping the right wire or tapping a button at the right time. But each of these tasks is a puzzle, and your companions outside of the Rift are the only ones with instructions to solve it. While many other Rift experiences were visually dazzling, this game was probably the most addictive.
There are some notable limitations with the Rift. It is designed primarily as a sitting or standing experience. You won't be walking very far from your PC wearing your Rift. Another aspect I found pulling me out of my virtual experiences was interacting with virtual people, places, and things. On many occasions, thanks to a convincing sense of immersion, I wanted to reach out and touch. But in my hands I had a familiar video game controller.
Oculus and its competitors are already working to this aspect of VR. Oculus' Touch controllers, which will be available later in 2016, are designed to make interaction with the virtual world more natural by simulating the feeling of having a pair of hands. Gesture recognition company Leap Motion is working on technology that would enable this type of experience without having to hold any physical controller at all. HTC and Sony will offer similar devices when their respective VR headsets launch.
So is it worth it? It's easily worth it if you already have a powerful computer and play a lot of video games. It's not much more than investing in a gaming console. If you're merely curious about VR, I suggest taking a look at Samsung's less expensive Gear VR, which uses Oculus' software and offers some of the same content. I doubt anybody who invests in buying a Rift will be disappointed with the experiences it makes possible, but the price to enter is steep.
What makes the Rift so compelling is that it truly creates the illusion of escape. I now understand why it's called the Rift in the first place: it creates a colossal disconnect between what's happening in front of your eyes and what's actually occurring in the world around you. It literally generates a rift between where you are and where you think you are, what you're feeling and what your body thinks you're feeling. It's brilliant. It's fascinating. It's not perfect, but it's only getting started.