Update September 22 2014: Oculus has revealed its latest Rift prototype, codenamed Crescent Bay, and it's undoubtedly the most impressive virtual reality device yet.
Oculus held its first ever Oculus Connect virtual reality conference in Hollywood on September 20, and the growing company used the opportunity to show off its newest Oculus Rift prototype: Crescent Bay. The lighter, more comfortable Crescent Bay Rift prototype has beefed-up specs and, for the first time, integrated headphones designed by the engineers at Oculus VR.
But unlike with past prototypes like DK2 or "Crystal Cove," Oculus is being less than upfront about Crescent Bay's specifications. They bumped the last headset up to 1080p, and Crescent Bay certainly appears to have an even higher resolution, but the company won't confirm as much.
That's because they want to focus on the Oculus Rift as a full package rather than as a simple amalgamation of its various components, all of which will no doubt change by the time the consumer version Rift - CV1, as the company refers to it - is finally ready.
"It's the combination of the resolution with the optics, with the mechanical engineering and industrial design of this thing, that allow for it to look like it's a higher resolution, even though it may or may not be," Oculus Vice President of Product Nate Mitchell told TechRadar. "The synergy of all the components together is what takes it up a notch."
What Oculus instead focused on with the Crescent Bay demos it showed off at Oculus Connect was the level of "presence" the Rift can make users feel under optimal conditions and with content designed specifically to be as immersive as possible.
Down with the Bay
Whereas every past official Oculus Rift demo took place with users seated, this time the company had journalists and other Oculus Connect attendees standing up and walking around with the headset strapped to their faces.
In interviews afterward, Mitchell and Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey emphasized that the stand-up Rift experience is not the experience that they're stressing for consumers, but was simply meant in this case to crank up the immersion as high as possible. Mitchell called this demo "conceptual," and Luckey said "the Oculus Rift is a seated experience. It's very dangerous to stand up."
As true as that may be - you probably shouldn't try walking blindly around your home while the Oculus Rift is tricking your brain into thinking you're on a different planet or in a submarine - the stand-up experience demonstrated with Crescent Bay at Oculus Connect was undoubtedly the most immersive and impressive virtual reality demo ever.
The experience consisted of about a dozen demos developed by Oculus's new internal content team. Luckey said these demos are the cream of the crop as far as what Oculus has developed, and many more experiences were scrapped or sidelined. Over several minutes they showed off a variety of potential Rift applications, eliciting a number of very different responses.
The Crescent Bay demos took place in a highly controlled environment: a small, empty room with four plain, grey walls. A camera - larger than the one used with Crystal Cove - was mounted on the wall, tracking users' positions as they walked around a small, black mat on the ground.
By tracking the Crescent Bay prototype's white-studded surface (these nubs are now located all around the headset, including on the back of the strap) this camera can accurately understand your position in the room, allowing you to walk around freely in virtual space. Not to get too dramatic, but it really is a mind-blowing experience.
The demos themselves consisted of several non-interactive environments, from a creaking submarine chamber to a sunny museum in which a life-sized (looked that way at least) T-Rex sniffs around and ultimately steps directly over you.
These short experiences lasted less than a minute each. One highlight took place at the top of a skyscraper in a steampunk, BioShock-inspired city. Standing up in that grey room, you could walk to the edge of the virtual roof and look down hundreds of feet to the traffic below. And as with the T-Rex's roar, the Crescent Bay Rift's attached headphones - technically stereo, but with simulated surround sound - made the experience seem all the more real with traffic noises, hissing wind and more.
That demo called to mind the Game of Thrones "Ascend the Wall" Oculus Rift experience designed by visual effects firm Framestore. Used by HBO at promotional events like the premiere of Game of Thrones' fourth season, Ascend the Wall put users inside an actual metal cage - replicating the elevator from the series - that rumbled and blew cold air at them as they virtually ascended to the top of the show's fictional 800-foot-high Wall.
The more points of feedback these demos are able to simulate, the more "presence" users feel, Oculus contends. These feedback points range from that feeling of cold air being blown in your face - which is not very practical - to ambient sound, which is practical - to something as simple as standing up, which is not ideal for every situation but nevertheless ramps things up considerably.
"You stand up, and suddenly your balance kicks in, and you're like, 'woah!' and you feel your weight shift subconsciously," Mitchell explained to us after the demo. "When you stand up suddenly [your subconscious] is totally engaged."
All of these demos showed off the ways that standing up can enhance virtual reality. For example, within environments that appear small, like a tiny cartoon city or a sci-fi terrain map that could be used for a strategy game, walking around makes you feel like you're playing an Ender's Game-like simulation.
But one of the most fun demos involved simply standing and facing a curious alien on a distant planet. As the user bends down and moves around to better examine the alien, it does the same to the user, clucking in a strange tongue. You actually get the sense that it's talking to you, and it's easy to see how this type of interaction could be used to make video games better.
Yet another demo had you staring into a mirror, with your head represented by a floating mask. No matter how hard I tried or how fast I moved, I couldn't detect a shred of latency as the mask in the mirror reflected my every movement. Again, the grey room in which this took place was a more controlled environment than most people's homes, but it was nevertheless impressive.
The final experience - and the most game-like - showed off exactly how cool an Unreal Engine 4 Oculus Rift game might be. Futuristic soldiers shot at a hulking robot as it fired right back, explosions sending cars flying in slow motion as the point of view crept slowly down the street toward the machine. It felt natural to physically dance around, dodging incoming bullets and ducking under flipping vehicles, no matter how ridiculous I might have looked to onlookers who couldn't see what I was seeing.
This could legitimately be the future of gaming - if Oculus can figure out the input problem. Although many Oculus Rift demos have used an Xbox 360 controller, there's still no standard input device for Rift games. Like Crescent Bay's integrated audio, though, this is a problem Oculus is actively working on.
"There's a very real possibility that we would have come to the conclusion that audio is something we were going to leave to third parties," Luckey told us at the conference. "We came to the conclusion that we had to do it ourselves, and we had to do a good job, because it was so important to get right. I think input is in that camp."
That's just one of the problems Oculus needs to solve before the Rift is ready for consumers, and given that Crescent Bay is just the latest of many prototypes it's unclear when it will be. But when Oculus Rift CV1 is ready, it has the potential to change entertainment forever.