One of our most anticipated visits of CES this year is Oculus VR. We're no strangers to the technology, but even after seeing the virtual reality technology several times now over the last year, it still feels new and cutting edge. That's largely due to consistent improvements every time that we get a chance to put our eyeballs into it. This showing at CES was no less impressive than when we saw it a year ago at CES 2013.
Although the development kits are easily obtainable, Oculus is showing its latest hardware innovations here in Las Vegas with its prototype named Crystal Cove. The new Oculus prototype now has positional tracking and an upgraded display.
Previous versions of the Oculus Rift tracked the X, Y, and Z movements of the user. That's perfectly fine if your head is mounted on a tripod, but it isn't. Rather, the motion and positioning of your head is also affected by your ability to lean back, forward, side to side, and even up and down. Crystal Cove is now able to capture that extra positional data through a camera mounted near the display that's able to read the exact position of the headgear. Given camera and sensor accessories from the Wii sensor bar to the Xbox One Kinect, we don't imagine that gamers will have any problem with the extra peripheral.
The result of positional tracking is pretty awesome. Epic Games provided a piece of demo software within its "Elemental" universe in a tabletop tower defense setup. We put the Oculus Rift on and we were suddenly sent off into this new virtual world, but unlike previous demos, we weren't able to walk or fly around. Instead, we were glued to our chairs, with movement being only where we could move our head. "Mouse look" was the same as ever, with us just pointing our heads where we wanted to look. To zoom in on certain details, though, all we had to do was physically lean for a closer look.
Positional tracking is good for more than just leaning into the scene. Oculus told us that the extra sensor data could be used by developers how ever they wish. For example, instead double tapping a movement key to dodge an attack, you simply just dodge with your body. Instead of using a button to peek around the corner, you simply just lean yourself.
The next big technological advancement is low persistence, which relates to how quickly the displays refresh. The switch from LCD to OLED displays played a big role in doing away with the smearing or ghosting of objects. Crystal Cove now only displays updated frames to the user, as they are drawn by the GPU. The new hardware also has HD displays, but Oculus wouldn't share the exact resolution – sticking with just "HD." We suspect that it's in the neighborhood of 720p, as we could still the individual pixels, creating a "screen door" effect. Before the final consumer version, though, the Oculus team aims to go to higher resolutions and achieve even lower latency. Crystal Cove's latency is at around 30 ms, which is a huge improvement over the triple digit numbers from previous demos. The team is aiming to get that under the sub-20 ms range for the final model.
The next demo is EVE: Valkyrie, from the developers of EVE: Online. This comes from an early version of a real game that is being designed for the Oculus Rift itself. We put on Crystal Cove and we were inside the cockpit. Looking down, we could see our feet. Leaning back – something that didn't work in older hardware – we could see our legs and the rest of our lower torso. Neat. Then we launched and were dogfighting in space, and this is where the improvements in low persistence display was apparent. Reticle for missile lock would follow wherever we looked – without distracting motion blur. Everything looked crisp and clean, and it was incredibly immersive being able to pilot the aircraft and looking all around with your head to spot your enemy.
We left the Oculus VR meeting room with smiles and anticipation for the final product. It's not often that we're happy to see the same unreleased technology at the same trade show year over year, but Oculus Rift impressed us with appreciable advancements and left us wanting one more than ever.