Update: Intrepid T3 dep ed Matt Hill managed to get some more time with Oculus Rift out at E3 in LA. Scroll down to read his E3 update...
From the Nintendo Virtual Boy to the mighty Mech Warrior pods, virtual reality has promised much over the years but never delivered.
As time went by, that dream of the holodeck never seemed to get closer. Fundamentally, the equipment has never been comfortable, attractive or particularly convincing - and the software has never supported it.The Oculus Rift, then, is a sign of change.
Firstly, compared with early devices, the Oculus Rift's immersion is convincing, and not broken by bulky kit or low-resolution screens; you genuinely feel you're in the game.
Secondly the convergence of key parts of the hardware - small high-resolution 7-inch screens, great motion tracking tech and high-powered GPUs - mean that a minimally effective head-mounted device became possible. That's the Rift.
Oculus Rift: Games
We got heads-on with the Rift at the Game Developers Convention. At the moment, the device is only intended for use with games. The ones we've tried with it - Doom 3, Unreal 3 and Hawken - are all first-person shooters.
What's notable is that it's much harder controlling the games with the Rift - the norms of a first-person game tie your sight to your aim, and the acuity level of your neck muscles isn't good enough.
Similarly, as the Rift raises your expectations, your inability to see your hands or body in most games is disconcerting. It's obvious that simulations and games will have to be designed specifically for this device.
Oculus Rift: Compatible tech
What's notable with the Rift though is the technical support it's getting from other sources. Other developers have adapted their devices - like Razer's Hydra motion controllers, the Leap Motion device (a cheap portable hand sensor) and the Virtuix Omni all-directional treadmill - which synergise with the Rift to make it a truly-immersive (if surely tiring) experience.
Oculus Rift: Developers
The software support is also in place. Apart from the games we mentioned earlier, Oculus has shipped 12,000 developer kits already, with many big-name developers trying it out.
Though few have announced support or titles for it, if just 1% of those make a game, then the catalogue will be huge. Already Half-Life developer Valve has converted its hugely-popular game Team Fortress 2 for use with the Rift.
Despite our praise for the device, we should be clear; until we try out the consumer version, we've no idea whether it will live up to its promise.
The developer version is comfortable, but takes adjusting and the lack of key motion-sensing elements can confuse your inner ear, making users nauseous when they initially use it. Yet, whether the Rift succeeds or not, the concept has been proved; VR, one way or another, is coming.
Oculus Rift: Verdict
An exceptionally-promising piece of kit that heralds a new dawn for virtual and augmented reality, the Rift is still at an early stage.
Until the much-upgraded consumer model is released (and no release date has yet been confirmed), some bespoke games and simulations have been released, and we can see that Oculus has overcome some of the hardware's limitations, particularly nausea, we won't be completely convinced.
Oculus Rift: E3 update
At E3 2013, Oculus VR were showcasing the new HD upgrade on its Kickstarted dev kit behind closed doors. At prototype stage, and likened by the firm's representatives to the duct-tape version of the original Rift, it already looks a lot more professionally finished. Rapid iterations towards a final consumer unit, which still has no official date, are clearly making the Oculus guys dab hands at product design now, too.
Boosting the original 1280x800 resolution to 1920x1200, it is an undeniable step on. We tried the Kickstarter version and the HD prototype straight after to check exactly how much it had been improved. While the fit is not noticeably any different, the bee-keeper-mask effect of the first model's display, which made it look a bit like you were standing right next to one of those Trocadero ad hoardings, is gone entirely, replaced with clearer definition, brighter visuals and more vibrant colours.
The Unreal Engine 'Elemental' demo saw us grabbing an Xbox 360 controller and sauntering around a castle filled with planetary debris, snow and large, horned beasties with glowing eyes.
On the original headset, the resolution meant everything had a pixelated feel that you had to adjust to and accept slowly as your surroundings, whereas the upgrade removes that barrier. Indeed, we spent a good minute just staring upwards in a hole in the roof as snow fell all around us, crisp and almost real.
We'd temper our praise with a little point that calling it 'HD' might get people's hopes up a tad – this is not entirely like being in a three-dimensional high-definition game just yet, there is still an element of pixelation and visual blur when you move at times.
Yet this shouldn't detract from how utterly awe-inspiring your first go with a Rift is, and how far that much-disparaged term "virtual reality" has come.
We didn't experience any of the rumoured nausea, nor did we feel compelled to pull the headset off at any time. If you move your head round quickly, while moving the right analogue stick to 'look' within the game world in an opposite direction, at the same time as walking fast with the left stick, it can cause a bit of confusion, but we didn't find it unsettling.
As Oculus said, there's something called the "superhuman" effect that the firm are still working on countering in some way. Because the Rift uses your brain to piece together the headset's two-screened visuals, rather than utilising an alternating technology like active 3D glasses, if your character in the game does something you can't do in real life, you will feel unnatural automatically.
For us, though, in what was quite a sedate game world, the only slight moment of weirdness was when the demo room's other occupants fell silent and we forgot entirely which direction we were facing in back in the real world, even when sitting down. It really is that immersive.
Returning from Los Angeles to play standard HD games on our big screen has been nothing but a disappointment. Amongst all the next-gen shouting over visuals and cloud computing, the Oculus Rift HD was the most impressive next step we saw, and the experience that felt truly like it was changing the game.
Don't know about you, but the thought of exploring the likes of Rapture, Dunwall, Pandora or City 17 in realistic space and time has us way more excited than slightly better graphics.
Oculus Rift release date: TBC
Oculus Rift price: TBC
E3 update by Matt Hill