Long ago, when the PSX ruled the world, I found myself at SegaWorld in London. Among the many garishing coloured entertainments was a virtual reality ride. While it promised much, I remember it mostly as a few minutes of utter disorientation, a 90s polygonal mishmash that moved in ways my head certainly did not.
Now, almost 20 years later, SegaWorld is long dead, replaced with a pod hotel, and I have a VR headset sitting on my desk.
Like all sensible people, I swore I would wait for the consumer version of the Rift. After all, the demos were great; the possibilities amazing; but I couldn’t see much practial use for it at present. And while it’s not hugely expensive (slightly under £300, making it notably cheaper than a XBox One) it’s certainly not a throw-away investment.
But then I went to EGX London. As we were swept into the gaping hanger that is Earl’s Court, we dived off to one side and managed to land at a queueless Elite Dangerous stall. Among the circle of PCs with large monitors and HOTAS setups were a few Rifts. And with merely a little elbowing of friends, I found myself using one.
While rollercoaster demos are all well and good, they offer nothing on the joy of placing on a headset and finding yourself in a spaceship. You can look around, seeing the cockpit around you. Looking down, you see a body - and ‘your’ hands sitting on a joystick and throttle. (This actually proves a little disorientating at times, as it’s very easy to forget there’s no connection between your hand position and the rendered ones). And then you push on the throttle, and fly through an asteroid field. Yes, it’s (relatively) low resolution - at 1080p the screen door effect is obvious, and text legibility is medicore at best. But as you race after the enemy craft, dodging lasers and mammoth rocks, you forget this. It is the most immersive gaming experience I’ve ever had, lacking only body tracking for that final jolt.
And so, with my normal self control where toys are concerned, I went home and ordered a DK2.
I’ve had it for just over a week now, and while I don’t in any way regret the purchase I find myself unable to recommend it at present. It’s a dev kit, and this is not marketing sugar. The hardware is sometimes finickity (the connection to the tracking camera, particularly), but it’s the software that really makes this still a raw experience.
- There’s still not a huge amount that supports it - the Steam group VRKilledtheRadioStar has a good (and short) list of recommended titles.
- It’s painful to set up. In theory, direct mode makes this easy - video is pushed to the Rift, and a mirrored view is displayed on your monitor. In practice, a lot of software needs to be run in extended monitor mode, and things get even messier when it’s not compiled against the latest SDK.
- It’s fiddly to get smooth. Simulations appear to be the easiest and most forgiving here. If you get refresh or frame rates off in first person games (Alien Isolation being the stand out example), however, you’ll very definitely feel it.
- It needs a lot of power to drive it. For the DK2, you need 1080p output at 75fps for low-latency output. I’ve ended up jumping from a GTX760 to a GTX970, which doubles the cost.
But depsite all of this, it’s amazing: the feeling of creeping down a darkened hallway full of antiquated equipment, only to have a shadow turn into a xenomorph; of leaping off the edge of a building and feeling yourself briefly loosing your grip on the earth; of watching a fleeting of spaceships reduce your cockpit to a smoke filled kettle of destruction.
So, my advice: find a friend with it, and enjoy. And when the consumer version appears: wind up your affairs, let your loved ones know you’ll be away from reality a bit and run, don’t walk, to order one.