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Wot I Think: Oculus Rift DK2

Facebox 2.0

The possible future is here, delivered by a nice man from UPS after a challenging five-month wait on my part. The first gen Oculus I'd been using had sadly morphed from toy of tomorrow into insufferable antique in the time it took for my gen 2 Oculus pre-order to process, and I'd almost forgotten why I was once so charmed by the whole concept of VR headsets.

The Oculus Development Kit 2, which I've been using for just under a week now, is an excellent reminder. My excitement is back, and I have a raft of new games, mods and experiments with which to assault my now bone-dry eyeballs. At the same time, I've been a little underwhelmed by this new-gen prototype.

I should start by saying this version of Oculus is not aimed at consumers, but is primarily intended to be a development kit for software makers. I am not (quite) one of those, but I am a man who struggles to resist new technology. I have an inkling that I am not alone in this.

Perhaps I'd let my generation two expectations get the better of me, but the main thing is that I'd hoped for more from the resolution increase. We've gone from DK1's 1280x800 to 1920x1080, and more importantly from 640x480 per eye to 960×1080 per eye. The 'per eye' res is what really matters, given the whole tech works by compositing two images into one. The main proble with 640x480 is that was unusable in terms of text readability and user interfaces, apart from the occasional experiment which used comically gigantic, screen-devouring fonts.

The raised res is enough to make the difference from illegible text to just about readable, which is a game-changer of sorts, but game worlds in general don't look as dramatically sharper as I'd hoped, and the visible pixel grid remains a big distraction. I still feel like I'm watching everything through a pair of old tights. It's a flashback to my bank heist days.

I shouldn't understate the improvements to readability, though. While there's some squinting involved, unlike before I am now able to fully play Elite Dangerous with a VR headset on. Glancing top left or top right to make a menu pop up remains one of the most pleasing implementations of the VR concept, and now I can work out whatever they're telling me too, which is vital for selecting targets and destinations. It's not entirely comfortable to read, but I'm confident that careful implementation by devs - larger or more contrasting fonts - will get DK2 as far as it needs to be in that regard.

The new head tracking camera - which clips to the top of your monitor or anywhere else suitably face-height - even means I can simply lean in to 'move' closer to the text in Elite too, which though it might make me appear like a vicar adjusting his bifocals to better scrutinise Deuteronomy, does make me feel more connected to the game. It's such a simple movement, but such an effective one. Leaning forwards, this thing we do so many times a day, is new to games. And it makes so much sense for games. It puts me in the game.

There is more general prettiness too, more discernible dials and lights and stars in the distance. There's blur and that damn pixel grid and wobbly edges, but it's beautiful nonetheless. It's without doubt superior to DK1, but I'm still left thinking I should have waited a while longer, for the next prototype if they ever offer it for sale, or the consumer model. A little more resolution is what we need still, I'm afraid. Even so, I'm going to spend a lot of time playing Elite this way, and not just dicking about randomly in space.

(However, it's worth mentioning that the camera's current software causes problems with Elite at the moment, and there's a vaguely torturous process required to temporarily disable it. Easy enough once you know how, but it took me an hour of misery to get to the bottom of it. Hopefully updates from the Oculus runtime and Elite's beta will fix this in time).

I've also had some fun with ZVR Apocalypse, a demo of a very promising Oculus-powered zombie shooter that's currently singing for its supper on Kickstarter. While the basic shambler-shooting is too familiar to fully activate my thrill glands, what does work me is how it's been made for VR from the ground up.

The 3D effect of a zombie who you've let get too close looming in to much some face is excitingly (and gruesomely) close to tangible - oh god it's right there, next to my skin, and ew, it's hideous - while it also uses the DK2's camera to bring about head-controlled aiming.

To some extent this feels wrong, because my head is not my hands so there's some dissonance in terms of waving a gun in the right direction by waving your face in the right direction. On the other hand, snapping my eyeline to get a bead on a deadhead has both a physicality and a naturalness to it that shuffling a mouse around a desk never could.

With three days on the clock on $19k left to raise I suppose it's not looking great for ZVR Apocalypse - the perils of targeting such a niche audience - but I hope they manage to do something. They seem to be really thinking about how the hardware can be used as a bedrock of playing a game, rather than just as a fancy accessory on top of them.

Head-directed aiming is definitely something I want to see OR games play with, and I'm extremely impressed by the accuracy of the DK2's little tracking camera. It will lead to great things I think, though I'm not overjoyed by having two more cables in play (one USB, one to rig it to the Oculus) for a device that's already a megasuid of wires.

Speaking of the physical aspect of DK2, to some extent it's not a huge move on. It's certainly not a beautiful object. Plastic Facebox remains the most appropriate description, but let's not forget that this a devkit, not a consumer product. They have done some tidying up on the cabling side though - there's no longer a smaller plastic box that daisy chains the headset to the PC, and instead the cables are directly connected.

The external power supply is now optional rather than mandatory too, and only used if you want to plug a USB device - e.g. gamepad or headset - into the Oculus. This is one of those little things that makes a big difference, in terms of being one less thing to worry about when you want to rig the device up after a period of disuse. I left my DK1 to gather dust too often because the setup process involved plugging in far too many wires.

It's a neater setup for sure, though some desk uglification is unavoidable. Long term, a wireless device is the gold standard of course, but I suspect that's long way off still.

In terms of comfort, it's really the same deal as before. You've basically strapped a tablet to your face, and there's too much plastic and foam involved to possibly forget that you're wearing it. I don't know if that's every going to be surmountable, but I'm very keen to see what Oculus can do when their interest is in as aesthetics as much as it is tech.

Most disappointingly, I've experienced some motion sickness in some games, which I'd hoped had been resolved in the move on from squinty old DK1. To some extent that's going to be about the software - devs are going to get better at this, working out what works and what doesn't, what FOVs fix the problem and what degree of motion brings it on. Right now, the DK2 isn't a magic bullet for dizziness issues, but I do feel like it's only going to be a short-term problem. Like I say, it varies hugely depending on what I'm using it for - in general, I've been able to wear it for much longer than I ever could the DK1, even to the point of watching a full movie on it. There is a slight sense of lag and judder to anything I use it for, however.

The optional 'direct access' mode which enables software to use the headset without having to set it up as second monitor is also pretty flaky right now, so there's a degree of faff with display settings whenever I want to use it. It'd bamboozle many, I suspect. Improved software is going to be vital if Oculus wants widespread adoption.

It's odd. I don't regret buying a DK2, but what it's done is less to floor with me with new hotness and more do just enough to keep me dabbling with VR games. I'd reached the point with the DK1 where strapping on my facebox and trying to play things whose UIs I couldn't read had become a chore rather than a pleasure, and the DK2 basically restores a good chunk of the initial joy and wonder. There's such strong familiarity: it's not yet taking me to new places. I'd probably be a whole lot more starry-eyed if I hadn't used DK1 extensively first, of course.

I reckon that, as I dabble more, and find more games that are playable rather than merely viewable, I'm going to feel more enamoured of Facebox 2.0. Alien Isolation's out soon and supports the DK2, which will be a big old test of the current tech. I'm hugely excited about potentially terrifying myself to death with it, presuming the game pulls off its central promise as well as working well with DK2.

Right now though, my thoughts have already turned to the Oculus generation after this. We're going to see some great things for DK2, but if you're not a developer and you're at all tempted by one, I do have to advise waiting longer still.

Important proviso - both Oculus' own software and that of third party games and applications is not yet final. Anything mentioned here is subject to MORE CHANGE THAN YOU CAN POSSIBLY IMAGINE at any point. Not to worry though, I will be running regular updates in the returning Tunnel Vision column.

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