The Oculus Rift Press Conference That Was Almost Useful

The Oculus Rift has been a long time coming, and Thursday’s press conference revealed more details on its highly anticipated release.  The final hardware look, publishing partners, VR games and even controller options all got their time in the spotlight.  There’s no denying this was interesting information, but it also wasn’t what we’ve all been wanting to know and asking endlessly for the past several years.  How much is the Rift going to cost and when is it coming out?  Q1 2016 is a large window, and seeing as that’s between six to nine months off not a bad one to aim for, but cost?  That’s something we should know by now, and the expectation of it being announced today was a reasonable one.  There were a few good points and surprises in the press conference, though, wrapped up with a few questionable decisions as well.

The big announcement was the controller, or actually controllers.  The Oculus Rift is coming with an Xbox One pad as default, which is actually not a bad plan at all.  The Xbox controller has been the go-to device for PC for a while now, for games that don’t default to mouse and keyboard, and the majority will be very comfortable to play with it.  A little bit of familiar can go a long way to making a new experience like VR easier to deal with, and the games that will put the Rift-specific Touch controllers through their paces will be thin on the ground for a while.

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Well played, Thing!

The Touch controllers were the biggest surprise of the show, and their E3 hands-on debut should provide some good feedback on how well they work in-game.  The idea is good, in that they break the controller in two so you’re hands can be tracked individually, and the ring that goes around your wrist is supposed to help track hand gestures like pointing.  Like the Vive controllers, though, they’re going to need games coded specifically for them to show their worth, and that’s still a long way off.  It also doesn’t help that the Touch controller isn’t included with the Rift, and we’ve seen what happens to non-included peripherals frequently enough that it’s a bit worrying.

Less worrying, however, is the games library.  Sure, the ones shown didn’t look all that special or different, but one of them was Lucky’s Tale and I know from personal experience at last year’s E3 what a huge difference wearing the Rift headset makes in experiencing a third-person world.  It’s hard to imagine Insomniac won’t pull of something equally as impressive with their icebound game Edge of Nowhere, or Gunfire Games with Chronos.  Even Eve Valkyrie didn’t look all that special on the 2D screen, and that one blew me away back in 2013 playing on the original DK1.  I wouldn’t blame anyone looking at the gameplay demos shown during the presentation if they came away wondering what all the fuss was about, because the experience simply doesn’t translate well outside of the headset.  I know VR is amazing and an incredible revolution in the way games are experienced, and it deserves to be a major part of the future of gaming.  I can use all the best words at my disposal to try to tell people about it, but until you’ve spent a few uninterrupted minutes inside the headset it’s hard to be impressed by games that look just like everything else you’ve ever played before.

That’s the thing about press conferences, though.  They exist to show people what the presenters think people want.  There’s what feels like a few dozen coming up next week during E3 and they’ll all run the same routine- sequels, updates, and refinements of the familiar.  VR’s problem is that it’s something new-ish, despite the last couple of years worth of development, so it’s going to be very difficult to show off the games that really make it sing while doing it in a way that also communicates the experience.  Superhot is looking better with every new animated .gif, Scale should be amazing with the way the Rift enhances the sense of environmental size, and I can’t wait to play whatever Llamasoft is up to (and still hope to see TxK on it someday), but these aren’t exactly “all things to everyone” games.  It probably doesn’t help that they aren’t VR-exclusive, but then again, judging by what was shown today, I’ve no idea why Edge of Nowhere and Chronos would be VR exclusive either.  We’ll find out soon enough, I hope.

The rest of the conference was focused on the Rift itself and its feature-set.  Oculus has teamed up with Microsoft to make the Rift a Windows 10-native device, although it seems likely if you don’t want to upgrade there will be drivers to get it working on Windows 7.  One of the draws of the Windows 10 support is the ability to stream games from the Xbox One to the Rift, but seeing as the effect is like watching it with a monitor strapped to your face, rather than proper VR, it’s maybe not so exciting as one might have hoped.  On the plus side, the single-screen solution Oculus had been working with so far has been upgraded to two separate OLED screens, one per eyeball, at 1080 x 1200 resolution per screen.  The screens are viewed with movable eyepieces, adjustable to fit the wearer’s personal distance between eyes for the best possible viewing.  Headphones are included but removable if your own personal set is better, and the padding that keeps the Rift comfy is also replaceable.  The final model is also supposed to be very light, “you can hold it with one hand” was the exact quote, but anyone who’s held a brick knows that there’s a whole lot of wiggle-room in that statement.  Nitpicking aside, the Rift promises to be a very comfortable and highly customizable piece of tech, and those screens sound fantastic.

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While the Oculus press conference didn’t answer one of the most important questions still awkwardly hanging around, and the software was more a promise based on developer reputation than a display of unfettered VR power, there was still good information in terms of final hardware details.  The Rift looks like it’s been designed to within an inch of its life, and the E3 reports next week should reveal plenty of details about how that works in practice.  Developers have been working on games and other software since the first development kits were released, so while games like Edge of Nowhere might get the bulk of the press, smaller titles like Darknet and Soundself should also get their time in the spotlight.  Bigger developers like Harmonix and Square-Enix also have unannounced projects in the works, so the content flood should be fantastically impressive.  Now if Oculus can just clear up the small matter of the final price and figure out how to show the excitement of VR on stage, their next major even this September should be properly impressive.