After spending several days playing with the brand new Oculus Rift virtual reality kit, I can finally understand why Facebook pumped $US2 billion into this technology. Forget everything you thought you knew about virtual reality (VR); after a stomach-churning, wallet-burning false start in the early '90s, VR has finally arrived in a form that shows its incredible potential, though you're going to have to pay a price to experience it now.
Importing one of these kits from the US works out to cost approximately $1150 once delivery costs and tax are added to the $US599 price tag. And even if you order one now, you won't get it until July at the earliest, as the first batch sold out in days. You're also going to need a PC with decent specs to deliver the performance required by virtual reality.
Weighing just 470 grams, the head-mounted display is surprisingly comfortable; even after several hours of use, I didn't feel any neck strain, nor any form of nausea, both huge issues with earlier VR headsets. There's also a movement sensor that you plonk on your desk, used to track your head and upper torso position, though Rift is meant to be a seated experience. A very simple Oculus remote can be used for VR applications that don't need complex inputs, while there's also a wireless Xbox One control pad for those games that do. It does the job, but later in the year Oculus will release a touch controller, which will allow players to use arm movements to interact with their virtual spaces.
Putting the headset on for the first time is a surreal, dream-like experience. The super-slick Oculus home menu automatically loads up, and my cluttered office space in the real world is immediately replaced by the spacious interior of an ultra-modern mansion, with a wood fire burning in the background.
The Rift's home menu takes place in your own personal mansion. Photo: Supplied
I can turn my head and body to look around the fully 3D room, and also navigate the floating wall of games and applications in front of me. Even non-gamers will know how to use it within seconds — simply look at what you want to do, and hit the centre button on the remote. The head-tracking is superb, translating my head movements into on-screen movements with no delay or stutters.
The game library currently has more 30 titles at launch, but there are a range of other experiences to enjoy first. 360 photos transplant me into various world-famous locations, from the beautiful bridges of Paris, to the ancient streets of Rome. Meanwhile the video application grabs content from Facebook, Twitch and Oculus, and plonks me into the centre of videos that now surround me.
However, both apps show up one of the main shortcomings of the Rift — the low resolution. Each eye has its own dedicated screen with a resolution of 1080 x 1200, which sounds fine, but each screen is just a few centimetres from my eye. This makes pixels obvious, giving each photo and video a blurry, grainy look. It's like going from a Blu-ray disk to a DVD on a large 60-inch HDTV. The fact that the videos are running at even lower resolution doesn't help.
Thankfully there are also a handful of 3D-rendered animations designed to overcome the resolution issues, as they use much blockier, less-detailed scenes. Imagine watching Toy Story, but you're now inside the movie, able to look around at the characters and sets that surround you. Each of these animations is only a few minutes long, but they're an impressive display of how VR gels with the movie-viewing experience.
To see where the Rift truly shines, it's time to fire up some of the games, and there's a nice range compared to other platform launches such as the PS4 or Xbox One. Like the 3D animations, these have been designed with the resolution limitations in mind, using much simpler environments, and the increase in immersion compared to gaming on a 2D screen can be described in one word: breathtaking.
The kit comes with a remote, head-tracker, a controller and the headset itself, as well as some games. Photo: Supplied
Eve: Valkyrie places me into the seat of a spaceship, where I can use my head to track targets and lock on with missiles. Even after hours of play I don't feel nauseous, and there's no sign of a headache.
Lucky's Tale is a rather basic Mario-like platformer, but the increased immersion more than makes up for the simplistic gameplay.
Those with a weak heart will want to avoid the horror game Dreadhalls, as the feeling that you're actually walking through these darkened halls instead of watching them on a screen makes them absolutely terrifying.
While the games are a much better demonstration of VR's potential, they highlight the second main issue with the Rift — bright objects on dark backgrounds seem to emit a bright halo, almost like a reverse shadow. This is caused by the special lenses used in the Rift, so it will be interesting to see if competing headsets can solve this issue, as they use similar lenses.
Make no mistake, the Rift is a seriously impressive piece of technology when compared to earlier VR devices. It's comfortable, well-built, easy to use and delivers a vastly more immersive experience than the two-dimensional windows we use to peer into today's games and applications.
Yet it's also a piece of hardware aimed at early adopters, thanks to the resolution and halo issues, combined with the steep PC requirements and high price. The fact that the touch controllers aren't available yet is another turn-off; with HTC's competing Vive VR kit launching in just a couple of months, including VR controllers and room-wide tracking, the Rift is going to have a tough fight on its hands.
Ultimately though, the Rift is day one of the VR revolution, and I couldn't be more excited to see how this technology matures in the coming years.