It is traditional at Christmas for all the family to gather around and spend at least an hour attempting to connect to the TV whatever new gizmo granny has bought the kids before giving up in a haze of rage, tears and USB cables. With a recent price drop to £399, the Oculus Rift has entered territory occupied by dedicated games consoles purchased by well-off and well-meaning relatives. The question is, what do you get for granny’s £399 and is it worth it?
After spending an evening in the company of the Rift, the HTC Vive and variants on Google’s Cardboard and Samsung’s Gear at Brighton’s VRLab 2017 (see last issue) I came away highly impressed the current state of Virtual Reality (VR). For those unaware, VR consists of a headset that immerses the user in a virtual world. The experience can be passive (for example, drifting through a starscape or watching the Apollo 11 launch through the eyes of Buzz Aldrin) or active, using hand-controllers, (for example fighting off hordes of invading zombies or climbing a sheer cliff face.)
In The Box
The attractive large cardboard briefcase box opens to reveal a surprising amount of equipment for your money, certainly when compared to prices a few short months ago. The Rift headset, consisting of 2 1080x1200 LCD screens and headphones is present, along with 2 Oculus Sensors (required to track movement) and 2 wireless Touch Controllers. It is just as well that the controllers are wireless, since the sheer quantity of things that need to be plugged in is a bit bewildering. But before getting to the set-up, it is important to consider that one thing not in the box is a PC to power the thing.
As well as needing a bit of space to do the arm waving that VR typically demands, you also need a PC that meets the minimum specifications. These consist of at least a Core i3-6100, 8GB of RAM and a Nvidia GTX 1050Ti or 960 graphics card. Your PC must also have 3 spare USB 3 ports and a full-size HDMI 1.3 connector. For my testing I repurposed an old home theatre PC that had a Core i7-6700 and 16GB RAM. I fitted a low-profile Gigabyte GTX 1050 into the limited space in the case and was good to go.
If you have a PC that meets the requirements, then setting up is a simple case of starting the installer and following the instructions. Be aware that a large 1GB+ download is likely to be required, so a bit of work before the grand Christmas morning unveiling would be a good idea. Once connected, the Rift software has you pace around the room to figure out a safe space for playing (the Guardian system shows a blue grid if your flailing looks likely to result in punching the wall) before running an entertaining tutorial to get used to the Touch Controllers.
Popping on the headset results in an instant sense of immersion and starts the Oculus software automatically. The central ‘hub’ for the Rift allows for the selection of games from a library of purchases or navigation to the store to buy more. Occasionally the user must remove the headset to complete a purchase, which can be irritating. The actual initial hub itself is quite basic when compared to something like the Microsoft Clifftop House, but does the job regardless. The Oculus Rift has no productivity pretentions – it is all about the games.
Looking around the environment and using the Touch Controllers to select options is instantly intuitive and I experienced none of the nausea some have reported, although I did get a slight feeling of vertigo on a few occasions (notably when pushing myself off a space station and looking down at the rings of Saturn).
There is a huge library of games and experiences, with Oculus thoughtfully rating them as ‘Comfortable’ – you’ll do little more than move your head slightly and are unlikely to have any inner-ear issues, ‘Moderate’ – things get a bit quicker and you will likely have to interact more with virtual surroundings, and finally ‘Intense’ which is where anyone susceptible to motion sickness may come unstuck. Games themselves range hugely in price – anywhere from free to £49.99, with price being no indicator of quality. While there is no ‘try before you buy’ option, refunds can be requested with little difficulty.
Of course, on Christmas morning, there will be no need to hit the credit card for additional games, since Oculus includes a number of free games and experiences. Highlights include First Contact, the tutorial, can be run anytime with a cute robot to keep younger players happy for hours. Dead and Buried, a supernatural sharp shooter, offers a Western themed shooting gallery. Robo Recall, a showcase for the Touch Controllers where the player must deal with rampaging robots using any weaponry to hand. I’d also recommend Lucky’s Tale from the selection of free games, it’s a 3D platformer with attractive cartoon imagery to amuse kids and adults alike.
While the Touch Controllers come in the box, care should be taken when choosing games, since older versions of the Rift used to come with an Xbox controller, and some older games expect to find this device plugged in and present.
Movie Magic (Not)
As well as games, it is possible to watch 360-degree videos on the Rift. I found this an intensely dispiriting experience. The limitation of the resolution quickly becomes apparent, with many suffering from stitching issues. It is also possible to watch normal 2D content in a virtual movie theatre, although why anyone would choose to do that over a normal television is beyond me. The experience simply isn’t a good one. A Rift should be bought for games, not for solitary binging on Vimeo.
After a few weeks of usage, I have yet to come across a game that has caused my PC system problems. The minimum specification GTX 1050Ti graphics card has rendered games such as Lone Echo without stuttering or skipping. The experience is highly immersive, and it is easy to lose hours at a time. However, the cables remain an issue – playing anything that involves standing up could result in an expensive tangle, and while the 2 Touch Sensors are good, there are still problems in games that turn the player around, and some may find a 3rd Touch Sensor a wise purchase.
With the price-drop, the Rift should be top of your list if you’ve decided that Christmas 2017 might be the time to get into a virtual world. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a virtual space station to save…
Acer Windows Mixed Reality headset
With Virtual Reality, it can indeed be Christmas every day. Armed with an Acer Windows Mixed Reality headset and a suitably festive virtual environment loaded, you can keep that yuletide buzz going all year. Slade would be proud.
With the release of the Fall Creators Update of Windows 10, the first headsets supporting the Windows Mixed Reality standard appeared, and Acer’s is one of the first. Windows Mixed Reality, for now, simply means Virtual Reality. The naming is a little odd, since other than stubbing your toe on a badly placed bit of furniture, the real world is unlikely to intrude much.
A Windows Mixed Reality experience consists of a headset and (ideally) two hand controllers, although a mouse or Xbox controller could be used. Upon putting the headset, the user is immersed in the virtual world.
The minimum specs for Microsoft Mixed Reality are impressively low. Integrated Intel Graphics 620 and a Core i5 with 8gb of RAM will get things running at 60Hz, although I would recommend ensuring your PC meets the requirements for an Ultra Mixed Reality PC, which add the need for a discrete GPU along the lines of a NVIDIA GTX 960 or 1050 or better. This allows things to run at 90Hz, and makes the majority of games I tried from the Steam store a lot happier.
Acer’s offering consists of a headset, trimmed with very shiny blue plastic (if blue isn’t your colour, then this may not be for you) and two hand controllers, all of which will set you back £399. Comparisons to the sombre black of the Oculus Rift are unavoidable, and the Acer looks like a lot more fun. The headset is light, certainly lighter than the Rift and is well padded. In addition, it does not require a strap over the top of the user’s head, which will make it easier for those with Big Hair to put the thing on. A dial at the back allows for adjustment, and works well. The visor itself is hinged and so can be flipped up in case some real-world interaction is required, which is a neat feature. However, there are some negatives – firstly the hinge feels very brittle and I can imagine breakages occurring over time and the general quality of the plastics used feel a little inferior to the Rift. Also, vaguely annoying is the lack of headphones and mic built into the headset– you will need to supply your own and plug headphones into the cable hanging over one’s right ear. This is an odd omission, and issues with sound plagued me throughout. Finally, the headset requires a USB 3.0 socket and a HDMI port at the end of its long cable.
Moving on to the controllers, these resemble those of the Rift with the addition of lights around the sensor ring. They are slightly larger and feel considerably cheaper. Again, the use of inferior plastics is very noticeable.
Unlike the likes of the Rift or Vive, that pretty much rounds out the included hardware. Where the Oculus requires the setting up of at least two (and ideally three) tracking sensors around the room, the Acer makes use of twin cameras built into the headset to work out where the user’s hands are and where the user is in the virtual space. This saves on cabling and general hassle, but unfortunately is not totally accurate. Occasionally the headset would lose track of the controllers and one of my hands would appear to be at a disconcertingly anatomically impossible angle in the virtual world.
Since much of the Windows Mixed Reality functionality is built into Windows 10, set up consisted of little more than plugging in the headset and following the instructions. I was able to quickly mark out a safe space in front of my computer, pair up the controllers and be deposited in the Microsoft Cliff House for a short tutorial.
Compared to something like the Oculus Hub, the Microsoft Cliff House is a lot of fun, and I spent a happy few hours playing with the decoration, filling the rooms with junk (just like real life) and pinning Windows applications to walls like concert posters. At the moment, the ability to use Windows desktop applications in the Cliff House feels a little like a gimmick, but it is interesting to see where Microsoft is thinking the technology will go – it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to visualise a completely virtual office, free of the limits of having to only work on a screen. However, for the time being, it remains a lot simpler to operate most apps using a keyboard or mouse on a normal monitor. The same applies to TV and video – the Film and TV and Xbox apps can be pinned to walls, but I think most users will likely remove the headset and watch content in the traditional way. Even with the Acer’s higher resolution lenses (1440 x 1440 pixels per eye – better than the 1080 x 1200 of an Oculus Rift) watching flat 2D video is a dispiriting experience.
Productivity aside, the Acer also has some gaming pretensions. With the recently added access to the Steam store, there is a wide variety of experiences now on offer, although still lagging behind the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. There was no perceptible performance difference between the Rift and Acer in playing the same game. However, switching between the two headsets did show some focus issues present in the Acer that I did not see in the Rift and the smaller field of view was sometimes apparent (the Acer has a 100-degree field compared to the Rift’s 110-degree.) The occasionally inaccuracy of the controllers did become a little maddening in some games as my player died a thousand deaths due to my left hand suddenly leaping 3 metres in the air, and this is not something I have observed with the Rift.
Should the bright blue Acer headset be put under the Christmas tree? If it had not been for the recent Oculus Rift price cut, then the answer would have been an unqualified yes, assuming you have a PC that meets the Ultra requirements (which are about the same as those of a Rift). The addition of the Steam store provides access to a large library of titles, certainly more than the very limited selection in the Microsoft Store. However, the productivity pretensions of the Cliff House feel very much like a neat gimmick rather than a killer feature at present, and while fun, would not be a reason to buy.
If you have a PC that only meets the minimum requirements, hate cables and really want to spend some time in the Cliff House, then the Acer could be for you. But the Oculus simply has a wider range of titles available on a more mature platform. So, if you want to play some VR games and have a PC capable of handling it, I would have to recommend the Oculus this year… but 2018 might be a different story.