When Oculus Rift pre-orders went live Wednesday, plenty of people were scrambling to get their hands on a piece of virtual reality. While many have said 2016 will be VR’s big year, it doesn’t mean the technology is going to be in every household.
There are plenty of people who may not know as much about what the Oculus Rift is, why people are so excited for it, or even if they should take the plunge on VR yet. Below, we’re taking on the biggest questions you may be afraid to ask.
What is virtual reality?
Virtual reality’s current form uses images projected on a screen about five inches from a wearer’s face to show them a new experience. Using lenses and stereoscopic 3D (which involves showing a slightly different image to each eye), the brain can be tricked into feeling like what it’s seeing is really real.
For a more in-depth look, here’s a handy virtual reality explainer video.
What’s the Oculus Rift?
The Oculus Rift is a headset, originally created by Palmer Luckey, that attempts to give users a sense of being in another place. Luckey began working in-depth on virtual reality while studying at USC, then shifted into creating his own headset. He founded Oculus VR, which gained prominence when it first offered the original version of the Oculus Rift on Kickstarter in August of 2012.
More than 9,000 backers pledged $2.4 million to receive their own Oculus Rift development kits, which were the first generation headset put out by the company. A second generation followed in March of 2014, only a few days before the company announced it was being purchased by Facebook for $2 billion.
Originally, Oculus development kits were only sold to developers, but since there was little verification, hobbyists were able to purchase headsets as well. This week’s pre-order marks the first time headsets are being pushed out as “consumer ready.”
What’s in the box?
There’s the Oculus headset itself, which comes with headphones and a microphone. There’s also the sensor, a foot-and-a-half-foot-tall device that acts as positional tracking for the headset, knowing when you move your head around in space. There’s an Oculus Remote control and Xbox One controller. It will also come with the USB and HDMI cables to connect to the PC, which founder Palmer Luckey said are about “4 meters long.”
Why did the price jump so much from development kits to the full thing?
The original development kit was sold for $300, and the second-generation jumped in price by only $50, which covered the included camera. They were also much lower resolution than the final Oculus Rift, and didn’t include the OLED display.
Luckey tried to address this in his Reddit AMA, which went up Wednesday night — after the pre-orders had gone live.
The unfortunate reality we discovered is that making a VR product good enough to deliver presence and eliminate discomfort was not really feasible at the lower prices of earlier dev kits that used mostly off the shelf hardware.
We could have released a lower quality product and saved one or two hundred bucks, but the all-in cost for the average consumer (including PC) would not have budged significantly. To address a later post, mums and dads would be paying in the $1300 to $1500 range regardless.
DK1 and DK2 cost a lot less – they used mostly off the shelf components. They also had significantly fewer features (back of head tracking, headphones, mic, removal facial interfaces, etc.) For Rift, we’re using largely custom VR technology (eg. custom displays designed for VR) to push the experience well beyond DK2 to the Crescent Bay level.
How much would I have to spend to actually use it?
The Oculus Rift has pretty strenuous hardware requirements to run it. The first step is a PC that runs Windows (at least Windows 7), but also has a powerful graphics card (at least an Nvidia GTX 970 or AMD R9 290), three available USB 3.0 ports, a second HDMI port and 8 GB of RAM. Building a PC like that yourself will cost around $1,100 (according to highly regarded PC building site Logical Increments), or you could buy one from some of Oculus’ partners.
Oculus created a partnership program with PC makers Dell, Alienware or Asus to create the “Oculus Ready” program, with PCs certified to be ready for virtual reality upon ordering. Those start at $949 or $999, depending on the brand.
This means the Rift isn’t just the cost of the headset, another reason people are angry about the cost. But it’s also a reason Oculus has been targeting its marketing at gamers. They have enough interest in building a PC of this caliber already, and may be using one to play games. It’s an audience that’s already invested in this type of technology.
Why doesn’t it work with Macs?
According to Oculus VP of Product Nate Mitchell, there are a couple reasons why Macs aren’t being supported at launch, after they were supported for the first and second-generation of development kits. One reason: the previously mentioned increased computer specs. Many Macs, save some Mac Pro models, don’t have the equivalent video card (as many a sad soul who has tried to play graphically intense game on a Mac can attest). Maybe because of that fact, people who want to game on computers have already probably made the investment in a PC, so there are fewer Mac gamers — Oculus’ target audience for its first wave.
“We saw only a tiny percentage of people gaming on Steam even used Macs,” Mitchell said at Oculus Connect in September. ” The bottom line is we only have so many engineers and we can only do so much, so we want to focus on nailing the experience on Windows. We have to prioritize.
So it’s Windows first, then we’ll come back to Mac later.”
What are other alternatives?
On one end of the spectrum, there are other full-featured virtual reality headsets: PlayStation VRand HTC’s Vive. Both are close to the specs of the Oculus Rift, though we don’t know the price or release date for either. PlayStation VR offers the promise of connecting to a PlayStation 4, and not needing an additional computer. The Vive has unique controls and offers the promise of a virtual reality, where you can walk around inside the experience.
Less powerful than the Rift is the Samsung Gear VR, a headset powered by a variety of Samsung mobile phones and built in partnership with Oculus. It’s a more mobile virtual reality solution, one that doesn’t need to be tethered to a PC to work, and it has a large number of games and interactive experience right off the bat, even Netflix. But the quality is much lower than the Rift, especially since it’s reliant on a mobile phone’s battery and heat sync. This leads to a lot of overheating, which doesn’t allow for a long viewing experience. It also lacks positional tracking, meaning it can’t tell if your head moves up and down.
The least expensive options are all related to Google Cardboard. These virtual reality experiences simply require the smartphone in your pocket, and an inexpensive, sometimes self-built headset. It’s the bargain-basement level of virtual reality; novel experiences can be had, but it’s not on par with what you’ll get on a more expensive headset. Phones can’t offer the resolution or frame rate of more expensive headsets, and the experiences don’t always have the same polish. But it can be a pretty neat party trick, and for many people, that’s all they want from virtual reality at this point.
Should I get this if I don’t play computer games?
Oculus is making a hard push for the gaming crowd with the Rift, and there are a lot of games to be played at launch. While Oculus Studios’ own video projects “Lost” and “Henry” will be available at launch, these are only five-minute film experiences.
There are quite a few educational or entertaining experiences to be found on VR, and hopefully some will be available at launch. Examples include a first person Apollo astronaut experience, and Oculus’ 3D painting and sculpting tool Medium.
“Right now, gaming is going to be the primary driver of PC VR, but the content base will expand over time,” said Luckey in his AMA.
There are lots of entertainment companies working on short virtual reality experiences (virtual reality Puppy Bowl, anyone?), but many of those aren’t of high enough quality to demand needing an Oculus Rift. Plenty will work on the Gear VR, and some on a cardboard headset. There haven’t been enough high-end experiences yet to recommend an Oculus Rift to someone who isn’t at all interested in gaming.
Can I stand up and use it?
It’s probably not a good idea. You can’t see any of the outside world when you put the headset on, and you’ll have multiple cables tethering your headset to a computer.
How do I control my hands?
The Rift comes with an Xbox One controller and a small remote, for non-gaming experiences.
At launch, there won’t be any kind of way to approximate your hands’ location. That will change with the release of the Oculus Touch, scheduled to come out in Q3. These circular controllers can recreate gestures and finger movement in the Oculus, and were developed internally. Third parties are also working on motion control solutions, but they can’t be guaranteed to work with all games and experiences.
Can I wear glasses with it?
The answer is maybe, depending on your glasses frames. The consumer version of the Oculus Rift has a much more streamlined interior than the two development kits. There also isn’t software to adjust the focal length, so you’ll be dealing with objects that appear to be 1.5 meters or so away from you.
Does it make you sick?
Virtual reality used to have a reputation for making people feel nauseated. This came from a mixture of the instability of the old hardware, and the lower-quality experiences available as people figured out how to make virtual reality comfortable. The lower framerate on older Oculus Rifts was a huge culprit. Our eyes see reality far better than the 60-frames-per-second you’d see in a game. When VR’s simulation stutters or can’t keep up with a rapid turn of the head, you’re more likely to get sick. That’s why many virtual reality headsets are aiming for higher and higher frame rates; the Oculus Rift is 90Hz.
Virtual reality developers have also learned a lot about what makes people sick in experiences in the last few years. If you have an experience where you’re moving around inside virtual reality (floating in the air, running through a field), but your body doesn’t feel like it’s matching the same movements, you’re really likely to get sick. Experiences where you are given a cockpit, steering wheel or even a nose can usually eliminate this feeling because your brain and inner ear can match up these incongruous feelings. “Oh, I’m actually sitting on a bike!” it will think. No more pukey feelings. Developers, at this point, will be just as responsible for making sure their users don’t get sick, though. Camera tricks like cuts or pans may make sense in movies or games, but will be hell on stomach linings in virtual reality.
So, if I could afford it, should I buy the Oculus Rift?
If you are very invested in virtual reality, have a computer that can run it and are excited about being an early adopter, maybe so. It’s also hard to recommend anything until we spend more than 20 minutes with one ourselves. Virtual reality offers a lot of promise, but there are a lot of bumps in the road until then. Technology also has a way of getting less expensive over time, though there has to be a demand from consumers as well. Virtual reality is going to take a while to catch on, so you may not need to buy in now.
“This thing is going to start small. We’re not going to sell 100 million units in the first year,” Mitchell told me. “This will be something that builds over time. We are in this to turn this into the next platform.”