Oculus should have been the hoover of VR - work with me on this - the kickstarter original that created the virtual reality market we now have could have been the name synonymous with the very tech it created.
That means it’s no longer a case of whether you should buy the Oculus full stop, but whether it’s the best option from what’s available. Do you want motion controls and tracking? A good game library? A light headset? How much do you want to spend? All things to consider now, so read on to see if this is the VR you’re looking for.
The final retail headset is sleek, with a matt and tactile black finish. That said the functional design and materials don’t quite scream aspirational consumer product (although it’s maybe not as dry as the almost sci-fi like Vive, with its spider-eyed arrangement of tracking sensors).
Only the Samsung Gear VR and PlayStation VR manage a level of sexy gadget appeal so far. But, once you’re wearing the thing, you’ll never see any of that that. There’s one lead coming off the back of the visor that causes no trouble and when you’re stretching the whole thing over your head it all feels robust but not cumbersome.
The included headphones look a little odd but sound great so while you can use your own it’s not really worth it. The only real flaw is it’s prone to letting light in around the nose. On the one hand that can really break the immersion as you catch glimpses of your knees, although it is handy for sneaking a glimpse of your watch or phone without taking the headset off (likely not an intentional features).
One thing the Oculus needs is a lot of ports. Specifically a USB 3.0 and HDMI for the headset. You’ll also need a USB 3.0 for the head tracking camera (below) and any old USB will do for the bundled Xbox controller. There’s also a nifty little wireless remote you can hang from your wrist to navigate menus and play a few simple games.
The headset itself packs in a mic, a set of decent headphones and two 1080 x 1200 AMOLED screens with a refresh rate of 90Hz. That’s an important part of minimising motion sickness and, combined with the resolution, is the main reason behind the high specs need to run everything.
While all the basics are here in terms of headset, camera and so on, the Oculus has missed a huge trick by not shipping with motion controllers. They exists and offer excellent hand tracking but they’re not out until later in 2016 and will be sold separately. It’s the system’s biggest disadvantage. Using a more traditional controller limits the experience hugely. You have no tactile presence in the world so what you play often feels like ‘normal’ games with a VR camera, compared to Vive’s more spatial aware offerings and unique hand-powered controls.
As previously mentioned you’ll need a fairly decent PC to run the Oculus to its best potential and that’s probably the single biggest thing to consider here. Even the recommended minimum Nvidia GTX 970 or AMD 290 graphic cards (and the rig need to run them) can struggle a little with some of the more intensive games. That’s not likely to improve as games get more ambitious so you might want to look up a Nvidia GTX 980/1080 or Radeon R9 390 for a bit of future proofing, and an i7 processor wouldn’t hurt either.
Assuming that you’ve got the power run it, then it all comes down to what goes into your eyes. Those 1080p screens create a reasonably sharp picture although not without some pixelation due to the lens magnification. There can also be a very slight blurring chromatic aberration effect and the far edges of view can stand out a little no matter how well you align the lense. These shortcomings are quite dependent on software art styles and effects though, which mask the issues, making them noticeable to different degrees depending on what you’re playing.
The effect is a little like looking through a snorkel mask into the world, although that field of view is easily forgotten in use. Personally we prefer the Vive’s image quality but there’s very little in it.
Head tracking is instant and responsive but the visual field of the camera does limit how far you can move about. Again, the Vive beats this with sensors that turn your entire room into a playable space, assuming you have the room and don’t mind fixing them to the wall.
While all that talk of plugs might sound like a faff that’s basically the start and end of the physical set up and the software does the rest. Without anything like the Vive’s sensors to worry about, the time from opening the box to playing something is short. There’s also a simple diagnostic to get a perfect lens alignment, crucial to for the best image quality. Oculus Home, a sort of virtual lodge that houses your software and films, as well as managing downloads and updates, is simple to use and welcoming.
The light headset won’t physically cause problems for most people and the camera detects when you put on or take it off so there’s no confusion during transitions. It doesn’t play well with glasses though, pressing on frames. So if you’re a spectacle wearer you’re more realistically limited to 45 minutes to an hour depending on your pain threshold. The real functional issue though is motion sickness, which can affect people to different degrees or not at all. It’s best to take it carefully at first as headaches and the urge to hurl can come on fast. Oculus gives all its games a rating of Comfortable, Moderate or Intense to help judge what you’re going to get, and most find their tolerance improves over time.
Oculus is a solid and basic way to access a full VR experience if the price and PC specs are within your reach. The experience is a literal eye opener too, from games to 360 movies. The software is friendly to use and the initial range is promising. However, the lack of motion controllers is a disappointment. As good as it is now, if you can wait we’d recommend hanging on to see what those add, as well as what the slightly more mainstream focused PlayStation VR brings to the table later in the year.
Don't forget to check out 9 things you should do with a virtual reality headset before all your friends