Oculus Rift Is Breathing New Life Into the Dream of Virtual Reality

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Palmer Luckey is a young guy from California, smart as a whip, and obsessed with virtual reality. After amassing a serious collection of the day’s top virtual reality tech, he realized nothing came close to the Matrix-like experience he wanted. So, he decided to build it himself. Say hello to the Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset that's got the tech and gaming community abuzz.

The Rift really took off after Luckey showed an early prototype to gaming legend John Carmack last year. Carmack liked it. A lot. He demoed a very early device for journalists—to great fanfare—offered to make Doom Rift-compatible, and featured the headset in his August QuakeCon keynote.

At about the same time, Luckey launched the Oculus Rift Kickstarter. The Kickstarter attracted 9,522 backers and $2.4 million dollars—ten times the $250,000 goal. The hype machine was already spinning so fast by last August that Carmack felt it necessary to tap on the brakes in his QuakeCon keynote by warning folks, “It’s not the holodeck.”

Before getting to what it is, what isn’t the Rift? The Rift isn’t a consumer ready virtual reality headset. The Kickstarter is for developers. The idea is that by getting the tech out to the gaming community, Oculus can begin to build broad game compatibility while getting professional feedback on the hardware.

But even as Carmack sounded that cautious note last summer, he added, “There’s a clear sense that this is not the same class as what has gone before.” Other professionals seem to agree it’s got a lot of potential. The Rift has the excited endorsement of thousands of developers on Kickstarter, gaming firms like Epic Games, Valve, and Unity—and this 90-year-old grandma:

How is the Rift different from prior attempts at head mounted VR?

Instead of a 30- or 40-degree field of view (a screen with edges), the Rift offers a 110-degree field of view. There’s no discernible edge to the Rift’s curved 7”, 1280 x 800 display. The screen is split into 640 x 800 halves, lowering the resolution per eye, but allowing the world to be rendered stereoscopically—that is pairing two side-by-side images viewed from slightly different angles (parallax) to make things appear 3D. You’re fully immersed in the game-world.

The headset uses a gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetometer to translate head movements into changes in perspective in the virtual world. In the past, high latency, or how much time it takes the system to translate physical movements into virtual ones, has been a limiting factor. Carmack believes the “magic number for immersive VR" is 20 millisecond latency. Get it faster than 20 milliseconds, and humans can't detect a delay.  (For more detail, check out this dense meditation on VR latency on Carmack's blog.)

The Rift's latency from head movement to game engine is down to 2 milliseconds, thanks to a proprietary chip (as opposed to the off-the-shelf sensor used in the early prototype). But total latency is still above that 20 millisecond threshold, in large part due to how long it takes the LCD screen to update. (Improving screen technology, made cheaper and in smaller form factors, will likely improve this lag in coming years.)

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Oculus Rift developer kit.

Resolution is a consistently noted drawback to the Rift. And it still only allows for head tracking, as opposed to full body position tracking. You can’t move your hand in the real world and see it in the virtual world.

But neither is doomed to remain a major stumbling block. Compact displays are moving to higher resolution at lower price points.

And as for body tracking, although Carmack says the old Kinect added too much latency, maybe the newly released Kinect 2 would work better. Or maybe a custom version of Leap Motion’s super high-resolution (1/100 mm) gesture tracking technology would pair nicely with a set of VR goggles. (Any developers happen to get both?)

It’s hard not to want an Oculus Rift in your home, like right now. But there’s no word yet on the consumer version—only “we’re working tirelessly to make it available as soon as possible.” The firm has shipped 6,000 developer kits and aims to send the other 1,500 out by the end of May. The all-important developer phase will likely go through the end of the year. And well it should. Anticipation and expectations will be sky-high, and delivering that first, jaw dropping moment at home will be critical.

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 10 Responses

  • davidflynn May 31, 2013 on 9:49 am

    Awesome start. I hope it really takes off. But please avoid the annoying flicker issues with 3d headsets. It sucks when you can only use them for 30 minutes or your brain explodes with headaches.


    • Ken Adams davidflynn May 31, 2013 on 10:14 am

      This setup doesn’t have flicker problems like you’re describing… that’s not to say you won’t get a headache, though. 🙂

      My $.02 is I’d like to see 4x the resolution for each eye. It also needs a way to handle people who need corrective lenses. I wouldn’t actually mind needing lenses like for my regular glasses made for it. It’s that good.

    • Kai Vega davidflynn June 1, 2013 on 2:37 pm

      its already taking off and doesnt use any shutters, it displays directly to each eye.

    • Kai Vega davidflynn June 1, 2013 on 2:43 pm

      On resolution, affordable 4k microdisplays simply aren’t available and higher resolution small(4-7inch range) are also just reaching availability and 4k varieties are again either extremely expensive or not available. this is meant to be an AFFORDABLE consumer product for the AVERAGE gamer. Unlike all current vr HMDs. The display will come with time unless they can amass the dinero to develop their own displays. OLEDs are looking very promising though.

  • senju June 2, 2013 on 3:11 pm

  • James Joyce June 5, 2013 on 7:36 pm

    They should combine this with Seereal Technologies pseudo holographic technology.

    Of course that requires a much higher resolution screen (in that demo unit they had on the BBC Click TV program they were using a medical display monitor).

    But because the viewers eyes are fixed relative to the screen, you wouldn’t need anything to direct the lightrays from the screen, much like a Nintendo 3DS.

  • knbxxx June 7, 2013 on 1:59 am

    Doesn’t look like anyone has posted this (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-22807205) yet. It’s an omnidirectional treadmill which would go great with the occulus rift. It’s going to be very cool watching this technology evolve and mature in the near future, but of course there is a lot of progress still to be made.

  • Jeff Kang June 11, 2013 on 9:36 am

    >VR Cinema 3D for Oculus Rift
    >It’s an app for the Rift that lets you watch videos in 3D while you’re inside a virtual movie theater.


    You could lie in bed while watching a movie if you put the entire virtual theater screen on the ceiling.

  • Jeff Simmons June 11, 2013 on 12:19 pm

    Very cool tech and ultra cool Grandmother!

  • dragonjar1 June 17, 2013 on 9:34 pm

    i think they should make a game for the oculus rift thats like the anime sword art online or something like digimon