We'll start with the hardware. One of the key components of virtual reality is effective stereoscopy, and this is dependent on getting a unique image to each eye. Modern 3D technology does this using a single display, either by filtering out half of the resolution (passive polarized) or by covering each eye alternatively 60 times a second (active). Both solutions encounter drawbacks when it comes to display quality and fatigue.
But the Oculus Rift does something different: it uses one display to service both eyes, with one half dedicated to the left and the other half to the right. This alleviates the fatigue associated with active glasses, as well as the artifacts associated with polarized solutions. It also means that, when you tilt your head, the 3D effect isn't lost, as it does with shutter-based and polarized glasses.
The downside, of course, is that resolution gets split. For instance, a 1280x800 display gives each eye 640x800 (the usable resolution is a little less than that, due to the lens distortion adjustment that developers have to include, as you can see in the monitor output). Indeed, the prototype's resolution is 1280x800. And while it works well, the aliasing artifacts are pretty obvious. The good news is that, by the time Oculus is ready for production, the company says it expects higher-resolution, lower-latency screens. A 1920x1080 display would give each eye 960x1080, and that'd make a huge difference in quality.
Field of vision is also important. Until now, the headsets I've tried were limited to about 40 degrees, leaving me with the impression that I was looking through a window. Conversely, the Rift offers a 100-degree field of vision thanks to the design of its optics.
Tracking is another critical component of a VR headset. If the movement of your head isn't synchronized with what you see on-screen, the whole illusion falls apart. Perhaps surprisingly, Oculus' head-tracker was developed completely in-house. Everything from the hardware to the software was designed to enable VR. The Rift tracks at a high 1000 Hz polling rate and includes an accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer to help compensate for drift.
It simply works, too. All six degrees of freedom are tracked, including roll, pitch, yaw, and movement on the X, Y, and Z axes. After putting on the device, I was immediately treated to impeccable accuracy without a calibration process. Even as I turned my head sideways and looked up and down during the demo, tracking stayed true. The Oculus team told us tracking would be improved in time for the consumer version, allowing for a better sense of movement in 3D space as you perform more complex maneuvers like crouching.
What about the hardware? The prototype weighs about half of a pound, and I felt absolutely no neck fatigue during the admittedly short demo. The company hopes to cut weight even more in time for the Rift's introduction, aiming for something comparable to scuba goggles.
The Rift is powered by a USB cable. And while it didn’t get in the way during our demo, we wonder if it might in the future as VR technology enables games with more movement. Oculus made the decision to avoid audio hardware as part of its Rift, leaving that piece of the VR puzzle to existing solutions, for now at least. Audio headsets don’t get in the way, we found.
I wore contact lenses during the demo and noticed that my eyelashes sometimes brushed up against the Rift's lenses, which was a little distracting but not uncomfortable. If you wear glasses, we can imagine that frames might interfere, though.