After years of waiting, the Oculus Rift has finally arrived. We’ve looked at development kits in the past, but the much-hyped virtual reality (VR) headset is finally available to consumers. At $599 it’s pricier than first expected, considering the original development kit cost half as much (and motion controls add another $200 to the price). But Oculus justifies the expense with far more advanced technology than earlier models, and a fully functional software platform and store, as well as solid compatibility with third-party options like SteamVR. The Oculus Rift is functional and immersive, if you have a computer that can handle it. The HTC Vive edges it out in sheer capability with its whole-room tracking, while the Sony PlayStation VR is our Editors’ Choice for its lower price and superior game selection.
What You Need
Official requirements for the Rift are nearly identical to the requirements for the HTC Vive. Oculus recommends an Intel i5-4590 or better CPU, an Nvidia GTX 970 or AMD Radeon R9 290 or better video card, at least 8GB of RAM, an HDMI 1.3 output, three USB 3.0 ports, and one USB 2.0 port. One of those ports is for the additional sensor of the Oculus Touch controller, and you can set up the Rift itself with just two USB 3.0 ports: one for the headset and one for the external sensor. I tested it using the Origin EON17-X, which has a Core i7 6700K CPU overclocked to 4.5GHz, an 8GB GeForce GTX 980M graphics card, and 16GB of RAM. For more options, check out the best Oculus bundles and Oculus-ready PCs we’ve tested.
The Oculus Rift headset is simple and understated. It’s a plain black rectangular visor with rounded edges and little visual flair. The front panel is completely flat, marked only with an Oculus logo. The sides of the visor are similarly flat, and connect to arms that pivot slightly up and down and attach to the three-strap harness for securing the device on your head.
A strap extends from each arm around the sides of your head, with a third strap extending from the top of the visor over the top of your head, meeting at a padded triangle in the back. The straps are held in place with hook-and-loop fasteners, and can be easily adjusted. A set of on-ear headphones sit on the arms, able to separately pivot and flip up and down to properly fit on your ears.
On its own, the headset is fairly light and comfortable. You can wear glasses with the Rift, but it will make the fit a bit tighter. I used my glasses when testing the headset, which helped ensure that I saw crisp and accurate visuals. But it also made putting the Rift on and taking it off a bit awkward, and depending on the size of your frames, they could hurt your ability to wear the headset for long periods of time.
The headset connects to your PC directly through a lengthy cable that splits off near the end into HDMI and USB 3.0 connectors. The cable winds down the left strap before running clear of the headset. It’s a little more awkward than the over-the-top-of-the-head cable of the HTC Vive, and I found myself struggling to find a comfortable position where the cable didn’t sit distractingly on my shoulder. But it’s not nearly as big a concern in use as the HTC Vive’s cable, since the Vive is designed to work when you’re walking around a set area.
The Rift uses a single external sensor, a black cylinder that sits on a nine-inch-tall metal desktop stand. The sensor can tilt up and down, and must be placed where it can maintain a clear view of the headset when in use.
Once you’re up and running, a 2,160-by-1,200 OLED panel is used to produce a 1,080-by-1,200 picture for each eye, separated by the lenses in the headset (just like the Vive). The lenses can be adjusted using a small lever on the right underside of the visor. More on the visual themselves in a bit.
The Oculus Touch motion controllers are an optional (and I would argue necessary) addition, but the headset still comes with some control options out of the box. The Oculus Remote is a small, rounded remote control with a large, circular navigation pad and Back, Menu, and Up/Down buttons. The remote helpfully features a lanyard to keep it attached to your wrist when you’re using the Rift. The box also includes an Xbox One wireless controller and a Microsoft Xbox Wireless Adapter for Windows with which you can use it.
If you get the Oculus Touch controllers, the Rift’s controls reach parity with the HTC Vive’s, which includes motion controls out of the box. We go into more detail in our review of the Oculus Touch itself, but it’s a very comfortable, natural-feeling control scheme with responsive physical components like analog sticks and face buttons in addition to motion tracking. You’ll need to clear an additional USB 3.0 port for it, however; it requires a second, included optical sensor in addition to the one the Rift uses in order to track the controllers (explained below).
Setting up the Rift is simple. You need to download the Oculus setup software on your PC, which will then walk you through the relatively few steps necessary to get going. First, plug the headset and sensor into your computer, using an HDMI and two USB 3.0 ports. Second, sync the remote by pulling out the battery tab and pressing a button. Finally, pair the Xbox One wireless gamepad with the receiver. Once these steps are complete, you can slip the headset on and jump into the Oculus software.
At this point in the setup process, you can play any software available on the Oculus Store, but you can go further with relatively little hassle. By setting the Oculus software to load apps from unidentified sources, you can get the headset to work with SteamVR, just like the HTC Vive uses. The launch of Oculus Touch means you can now use all SteamVR games that support motion controls with the Rift. They register as HTC Vive motion controllers when you set them up for Steam, and work flawlessly with Vive-compatible games.
While the Rift now has motion controls, it doesn’t support whole-room VR like the Vive. You can use it while sitting or standing, and can draw a small area in which to play in front of your desk, but the included external sensor and additional Oculus Touch sensor are for head and controller tracking, and aren’t positioned to scan an entire room like the Vive’s two wall-mounted sensors. This is a small sacrifice; since the HTC Vive is tethered to your connected computer with a cable just like the Rift, actually walking around with the headset on requires you to be very careful not to trip over the dragging wire. It’s an immersion-breaker that hurts the experience of otherwise free movement in VR. The Rift’s head tracking works very well in the sitting/standing confines of intended use. The headset followed my motions smoothly and accurately in testing, just like the Vive.
The Oculus Experience
The Rift shares the same resolution and refresh rate as the Vive, and as such the experience is very similar between the two. Like the Vive, the Rift produces a crisp picture with smooth motion and head tracking. In testing, the 3D effect of the stereoscopic images really gave me the sense that the virtual objects I was staring at were actually in front of me. Ultimately, the Rift headset is a display, so smoothness and graphical fidelity will depend on the power of your computer and sophistication of the software. In terms of hardware, though, the Rift produces a compelling virtual experience for the eyes.
I played a few VR titles available on the Oculus store, including EVE: Valkyrie, Farlands, and Lucky’s Tale. I also tried Adventure Time: Magic Man’s Head Games and Virtual Desktop, launched through SteamVR.
EVE: Valkyrie is the star of the launch titles for the Oculus Rift. It’s an online, multiplayer space dogfighting game sent in the EVE universe. You play a cloned pilot who runs sorties with your squad against other, similar squads. It boils down to the space version of team deathmatch in any first-person shooter, but it’s an engaging and fairly deep flight game.
The format is perfect for using the Rift while sitting. The view puts you in the cockpit of your chosen space fighter, and you can freely look around it while staying in place. The game itself is controlled with the Xbox One gamepad, piloting the ship with the dual analog sticks and firing with the triggers. Fundamentally, the VR aspect of the game is unnecessary; the experience is actually similar to playing a dogfighting game on a normal monitor, just with the ability to look freely around your cockpit (which doesn’t offer any significant tactical advantage). However, the immersiveness the Rift offers in completely engulfing you in this cockpit perspective really makes the game feel more engaging and tense.
It isn’t a complex economic MMO like EVE itself, and the style of combat is a bit arcade-like in how ships fly and fire, but it’s enjoyable to fly around in space, shooting at people while they shoot at you. It feels like one of the most complete games made specifically with VR in mind.
Farlands is a xenobiological playground. You play a researcher on an alien planet, looking for new life forms. You can scan different creatures by staring at them, and improve your understanding of them by feeding them foods they want. It has a very mellow quality, looking for alien animals and watching them eat to slowly and steadily unlock new environments to explore. While the concept seems ideal for motion controls, it was simple to play with a conventional gamepad, using a reticle in the center of your view to highlight objects and move around.
Lucky’s Tale is a standard cartoony third-person platformer where you control a cartoon fox as he runs through different levels trying to rescue his pet pig. It’s an eye-catching experience that doesn’t really need VR at all. Using the Rift in a game like this lets you look around easily from your above-the-action point of view. However, you can’t readily move the camera to get a better view of a given position relative to the character you’re controlling, which proved to be very frustrating when trying to get Lucky to collect lines of coins set in specific arcs in 3D space; without the ability to pan around Lucky, I couldn’t easily align my jumps.
Our review of the Oculus Touch goes into detail of what Oculus Rift games that support Touch are like, but to summarize the experience, the optional Touch controllers make things like spraypainting walls, aiming guns, and using telekinetic powers feel very natural.
I ran Adventure Time: Magic Man’s Head Games (ATMMHG) on SteamVR to see if the Rift could handle it as smoothly as the Vive does. While SteamVR isn’t the Rift’s native platform, it displayed the interface and loaded the game perfectly, and I found it was just as smooth and immersive as it is on the Vive (though, like with Lucky’s Tale, the actual value of playing said third-person platformer in VR is still questionable).
I also tried Virtual Desktop, a program that projects your computer’s screen in front of you in virtual space. It was just as functional and intriguing as it was with the HTC Vive, showing my monitor as a giant, curved display around me. The software can also generate a flat screen, and even show your desktop view as a television mounted on the wall of a home theater. It’s a handy way to make VR useful, even without VR-specific software. If you want to watch a video and it’s not available on a client for the Oculus Rift or on SteamVR, you can just load it with Virtual Desktop.
The only downside is the resolution of the display. Since the Rift shows a 1,080-by-1,200 picture to each eye, and the virtual screen appears as a floating object, it’s actually smaller than the headset’s per-eye resolution. That means text can appear blurry and grainy unless you find a sweet spot from which to look at the screen, and reading can cause eye strain. That said, watching video on Hulu and Netflix is very cool.
Now that the Oculus Rift is finally available as a consumer-ready product and not simply development hardware, it’s even easier to see that it has vast potential. The headset comfortably produces an immersive, crisp virtual reality experience that will continue to improve with the development of new software. We’ll have to see how the video game industry responds to the hardware, but all the pieces are there to build the next big RPG or shooter in VR.
The Rift benefits from access to both the Oculus store and SteamVR. Whether that’s a significant advantage depends on if publishers and developers focus on one platform over the other, and how eagerly they start releasing titles on both. Like game consoles, that is generally a matter of taste for the user. The boon in options Rift owners get is more from Oculus’ decision to close off the Oculus Store from other VR headsets more than anything HTC or Steam have done, so considering it a distinct advantage seems accurate, but a bit unfair; the VR ecosystem as a whole, along with the Oculus Store’s publishers and developers, would benefit from a larger installed user base.
The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive now stand as equals with the launch of Oculus Touch. The optional motion controls make the headset cost the same as HTC’s, while offering the same level of control. The HTC Vive has a technical edge with its whole-room VR, but in our experience that’s a fairly clunky, stressful experience that requires awareness of the wires you’re dragging around. Both are technically impressive, powerful VR headsets, but our Editors’ Choice remains the PlayStation VR for its lower price and ease of use (though it only works with the PlayStation 4, rather than a PC).
If you want to try virtual reality, but you don’t want to spend at least $400, the Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream View are solid choices. They’re smartphone-based VR headsets that offer some of the best mobile VR experiences you can currently get for under $100. However, you need a compatible phone to use them.