Regular readers are probably tired of hearing us say that Oculus’ latest hardware demonstration is a new pinnacle in virtual reality that finally puts an end to many of the problems holding the technology back. To those readers, I apologize in advance: The new Crescent Bay prototype that Oculus announced this weekend and showed off at its first-ever developer conference in Hollywood is a new pinnacle in virtual reality that finally puts an end to many of the problems the hold back technology.
I tried the new device for two 10-minute demo sessions at the conference, each time going through the same set of 10 pre-made demo experiences. As soon as I put it on (or rather had it on; we were barely allowed to touch the fragile prototypes for fear of breaking them), I noticed a significant improvement in comfort over previous Rift development kits and prototypes. Those old devices all looked like ski goggles, with thick elastic bands on the back that squeezed the display box tight around the eyes. It was a design decision that put a lot of pressure on some sensitive facial areas, and it left this user a sweaty, red mess after every use.
The Crescent Bay prototype eliminates this problem. Instead of an elastic band, there’s now a stiff plastic strut that goes over the ears and drops down to meet at a thick, triangular back strut, which folds around the neck and back of the skull. (The single-threaded wire that connects the Rift to the computer now slides down the right side of this plastic mount, which is much more comfortable than the over-the-middle-of-the-skull solution on previous development kits.) This plastic strap slides in and out of the main unit quite easily to adjust for different sized heads, while a small Velcro strip goes over the top of the skull for extra support.
The new design, which CEO Brendan Iribe told Ars was a direct result of the recent purchase of industrial design firm Carbon, doesn’t form quite such a perfectly dark seal as other Rift prototypes – more light seemed to seep in from below . However, I was more than happy to make that trade-off for a unit I could see wearing comfortably for hours instead of minutes.
Oculus says the Crescent Bay prototypes are much lighter than previous development kits, but the company wouldn’t go into specifics about weight – or any other specs specific to the device, really. Iribe told Ars that this silence was to avoid confusion among developers, who he said shouldn’t focus their efforts on a device prototype that doesn’t necessarily indicate where a consumer product will end up. “Nobody should be developing against that, because it’s not the real deal yet,” Iribe said. “They should develop against DK2. If we actually announce that this is the resolution we’re going to ship, then they can develop against it…”
Still, we can guess at the specs based on our experience. The screen looked good enough to at least match the 1440p resolution of the Gear VR units shown in the next room. When held close to the face, this isn’t quite “retina” resolution with no distinguishable pixels; I could make out some slightly distorted moiré patterns when trying to focus on a specific object up close. Still, it’s a vast improvement over the 1080p displays on the DK2, with almost none of the readily apparent “screen door” effects caused by the black spaces between pixels. It was much easier to read small text on the Crescent Bay unit, even at a virtual distance.
The refresh rate is harder to estimate just by looking, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this prototype hits the 90Hz target that Oculus says is necessary to give most people a truly stable, flicker-free VR image (above 75Hz on the DK2 ). The environment just feels a little more solid on Crescent Bay, without the juddering or smearing seen on previous Rift units.
Combined with the increased resolution, it’s much easier to suspend disbelief and feel that there’s a virtual environment locked in around your position. Iribe said several times this weekend that this was the first Rift unit to solve the significant nausea issues he’s had with VR since joining the company two years ago, and it’s easy to believe.
Walk and listen
While previous Oculus demonstrations required everyone to sit in front of a computer, the Crescent Bay demo asked us to stand on a cushioned square mat about three feet long on one side. The attendant told us that we could walk anywhere on this mat and, surprisingly, move our head up and down anywhere from the floor to jumping in the air. No matter how much I ducked, jumped, twisted, or even sat during the demo, the head tracking never lost track of my position, thanks in part to new tracking LEDs on the device’s rear strap.
Iribe told Ars that the head-tracking camera mounted about three feet away during that demo was the first one built specifically for Oculus. It has a much wider field of view than the one that comes with the DK2. In fact, almost all of the components in the prototype were custom-built for Oculus, Iribe said, providing much stronger integration than the off-the-shelf parts of older units.
The last major improvement in the Crescent Bay prototype is integrated audio, delivered via two small, optional over-ear headphones that fold down from the side, like earflaps on a beanie. Audio quality was only modest, but building headphones into the device eliminates the need for an extra wire between the user’s head and the PC tower. This is ultimately much more breathable and less sweat-inducing than separate, rigid earcups.
A few of the demos we tried used these headphones to show off a new directional audio solution that Oculus is working on with RealSpace3D. This feature was definitely another work in progress, causing the apparent position of ambient sounds to jump around a bit as I moved my head. For example, if I turned my head to the right while staring at a roaring T-Rex, it would sound like it was in front of me, then cut off abruptly to a sound balance dominated by the right headphones. However, in another demo, I could only hear a fire burning in a toy-sized apartment building when I physically leaned over and put my face right in front of it, which was a pretty incredible trick.
Out of hand
Notably, all of the demos lacked any kind of hand controls or the ability to see my actual limbs, and Oculus is still silent on any developments on its own control solution. However, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a way to interact with the environment. One demo featured a gray and wrinkled alien whose look and demeanor changed as I moved around to examine him. Another demo replaced my head with a disembodied ivory mask that bobbed in front of a mirror, tracking my position and angle perfectly as I viewed “myself” from multiple angles.
Oculus seemed eager to show off the kinds of high-end VR graphics you can only get when tethered to a premium PC (unlike, say, the cordless cell phone in the Gear VR headset further down the world). hall). A scene set in a submarine was particularly detailed, as was a vertiginous scene from the top of a steampunk skyscraper that could have come from a Bioshock follow-up.
But it wasn’t all about “realism.” One demo put me in a quiet forest scene in front of a fire pit with abstract, angular woodland creatures that couldn’t be more than 100 polygons each. Another showed a brightly colored city with toy-like trains, planes, and even a small fire engine moving around. This was a nice indication that Oculus believes that a strong sense of “presence” in a VR world doesn’t necessarily require an insane level of graphical detail.
The initial demos all built up to the indisputable highlight, an Epic-created Unreal Engine 4 showcase titled “Showdown.” The demo takes place on a city street engulfed in a firefight between armored shocktroopers and a three-story robot. The demo slowly and automatically moved me down the street, letting me watch carnage explode in slow motion all over the place. There was ample opportunity to track individual bullets and missiles through the air, see bits of debris fly into (and sometimes through) my face, and even peer in through the sunroof of a car as it flipped overhead after an explosion.
It was an impressive graphical showcase, but I immediately wondered how workable this sort of first-person action shooter would be as a full game. Crawling through the scene in slow-mo was fun for a demo, but running and spinning around the environment at full speed will probably be much more nauseating. In fact, none of the demos shown take us outside of the virtual space represented by the cushioned mat on the floor, and that could be somewhat of a limiting factor for VR game design going forward.
In any case, the experience has convinced me more than ever that Oculus is approaching hardware that can deliver an acceptable, nausea-free VR experience for an ultimately mainstream consumer product (which Oculus still isn’t talking about in detail). I’ve been enjoying my Oculus DK2 in the home office for a few weeks now, but now I can’t go back to it without being a little disappointed. It doesn’t live up to the experience I know I could have if they just let me take home a Crescent Bay prototype.