My arms and legs kept making movements without my brain telling them to do so.
The first time I tried the series of demos Oculus was using to show off the Crescent Bay hardware I was unable to fully control my body. When I found myself standing on the edge of a tall building I instinctively jumped backwards. When the T-Rex bent down to roar in my face I found myself cowering. I had to stop myself from reaching out to touch things my brain knew didn't exist.
This is what all the other prototypes have been missing: the convincing sense of actually being there. One of the demos allowed me to walk around a submarine, and I found myself lost in the sensation of being in this small room deep underwater.
The prototype hardware we were shown in Hollywood won't be released, it's just a tool Oculus is using to give developers and press a hint of what's coming in the consumer version. But that hint is a huge jump up from any of the company's previous pieces of hardware.
Finding the flaws
The second time I went through the sequences I was able to lean into each model and experience to test their boundaries and effectiveness, but the initial experience was one of pure reaction. Everything about the hardware has been improved: The headset is lighter, the resolution is higher and the movement more responsive.
There are tracking dots around the entire headset, including on the strap that locks it behind your head, so you can turn completely around with your body to see everything around you. You still have to be care of that wire though, as I found myself often slinging it back across my shoulders to keep it out of my way.
Everything about the hardware has been improved.
Those few annoyances aside, including a tiny bit of light bleed from under the headset, the illusion was perfect. I felt like I had gone someplace else and was seeing amazing things. I interacted with an alien who was about my height. He talked to me in his language, and his eyes watched my head as I moved around him to enjoy the character model.
This was a standing experience, and we could feel a foam mat of around four square feet under our shoes so we knew where we could and couldn't go. The new tracking camera, mounted on the wall and pointed downwards, allowed me to crouch down to take in every detail.
The camera tracked me perfectly no matter how I moved my body or head in that area, although leaning off the edge could cause issues. The door has been opened for small scale walking experiences, and the effect is immediate and almost shocking.
I saw a tiny toy city, complete with miniature people playing catch and individuals inside the houses that could be seen by bending over and peering into the windows. I often found myself reaching out to touch something, and then being disappointed I couldn't see my hands or directly interact with any of the scenes.
Of course this graphical fidelity doesn't come cheaply. "Those are high-end Maxwell GPUs from Nvidia, running like i7s or something like that," Nate Mitchell, Oculus' VP of product told Polygon after the demo when I asked about the hardware driving the demos. He described the test systems as the highest-end gaming PC "a human being would buy."
Everything was turned all the way up to improve the wow effect for developers and press, but they could have turned down some of the fidelity to ease the computational burden. The demos were running at a locked 90 frames-per-second to keep movement smooth.
In other words, expect to upgrade your system if you want to run these kinds of experiences on your home rig, especially at the frame rate necessary to keep the experience perfect. These were showpiece demos designed to give us a sense of what was possible, not what's going to be likely at launch or reasonable for the PCs most of us are using at home.
They wouldn't comment on the resolution or size of the screen, although there is some speculation out there, but Oculus noted that it's more of a combination of many little improvements that add up to the superior experience.
"The main thing is the optics combined with the screen combined with the mechanical engineering is so much tighter, and synergized, that it really makes it so that you can't notice the pixel structure, there's like no visible pixels on the screen," Mitchell said.
The goal is to show developers where they're going with the hardware.
"It is that total experience, which sounds cheesy, I know, but we try not to focus on tech specs," he added. "It's all the pieces working together ... VR is the house of cards, if you pull any one piece the illusion falls down."
He claimed that if you swapped the lenses on this unit with any other development kit, you'd be able to pick out the pixel structure. "It's because we're optimizing as a cohesive system instead of individual components that we're able to develop something with much more presence."
There are no plans to ship the system as a product, to customers or developers. They're moving towards the final, retail version of the Oculus Rift, which means creating and shipping yet another stopgap solution would take focus away from that goal. You can still use the DK2 as your primary developer kit and know that the games will work even better on the upcoming hardware.
The goal of showing off the prototype is to show developers where Oculus is going with the hardware, to show off the new built-in audio features and to prove that integrated audio and 360 degree tracking is coming. The press buzz is just gravy, the real value is that every developer coming out of the demo was humming with ideas and ready to commit to more ambitious VR experiences.
The final version is on the way
Mitchell said you could make a few assumptions about the consumer version from the Crescent Bay prototype: The things that they've added and showed at the event are things they care deeply about. The features missing from the prototype? It's possible they won't make it into the final product.
This is a look at the roadmap, which he admits they've been cagey about, but the retail unit is the next step.
I pulled back, sucking air through my teeth
No one seemed willing to comment on a possible launch date for the consumer version, but it seemed like this latest version of the hardware was much closer to what we can expect from that upcoming product. This is why Crescent Bay units are unlikely to be sent out in any great number, if at all: Oculus is hard at work on the final, retail version of the hardware.
"This is more like the HD prototype, we're gunning to the consumer version, we don't have a lot of time or bandwidth to productize another development kit," Mitchell said.
The final demo was the showstopper: A slow-motion trip through a futuristic war zone. It wasn't interactive, but everything felt real. Uncomfortably so. I found myself dodging bullets and shrapnel, and grimacing when things exploded nearby. A car was caught in the blast and flew over me; I could look up and see someone pinned inside. The robot at the end of the demo bent down to scream in my face, and once again I pulled back, sucking air through my teeth.
I would go through this demo two more times throughout the course of the day and I would explore the scene, admiring the work done on the gun models and the body armor of the soldiers, walking around and bending down close to see every detail. That first time made me feel like I was in a war myself, however, and I couldn't keep my body from reacting.
Gaming is about to change, and the players willing to upgrade their systems to take full advantage are going to find themselves in a whole new world.