“It doesn’t really work until about three minutes in,” is what I’m told as I slip on an Oculus Rift virtual reality (VR) headset for the first time. I can understand my guide’s desperation to reassure me; too many times in the past few years have tech giants and PR spins tried to sway us about ‘innovations’ that didn’t work out. 3D cinema arguably only proved its worth with 2013’s Gravity, while the Wii had to add an entirely new accessory before reaching its full potential. You couldn’t blame anyone for being sceptical about this ambitious technology.
That scepticism seemed to be well-founded as I took my first glimpse into the Rift’s lenses to greet a blurry version of Half-Life 2’s menu. Still, I took my guide’s words to heart and insisted that things would pick up as I started a new run through.
It’s fair to say that Half-Life 2’s opening movie doesn’t make for an ideal introduction to VR. The mysterious G-Man rambles on at me while I gather my bearings and try to focus my eyes on the huge suited figure in front of me. It’s disorientating to say the least, leading to a quick tightening of the headset (with Rift, the tighter the better). Cynicism still buried, I moved onto the train into City 17, which grants a precious few moments to adjust to the head tracking.
Oculus is yet to make its latency-reducing OLED version of the Rift available to developers but even this early version boasts impressive tech. The screen easily kept up with me as I shifted my head around the area and started to get a sense that I really was in the room. The real-time tracking is crucial to Rift’s illusion and noticing even a second of lag between you and the camera could shatter the experience but it remained solid the entire time. That said, it’s not until the vehicle pulls in and you take your first steps into Valve’s iconic police state that Oculus Rift really starts to impress.
The first step off of that train will likely be one of the most memorable I take with the Rift. While you’re trapped inside the transit’s walls you can’t get a sense of depth but as you arrive on the platform and turn your head to the left to look down the corridor you feel your mind start to argue with reality. It’s not that it takes your breath away like Gravity might during its more explosive setpieces, but just how convincingly it portrays a sense of space. The image in front of you realistically stretches all the way down to the end of the line. The guards at the end linger around, completely oblivious to the fact that I’m so amazed that they’re just standing there, right in front of me.
Audio, played from the PC’s speakers, is keeping me grounded in reality for now but solving that issue is just a pair of headphones away. Without them, there’s a disbarring distance between the actions you’re seeing and the sounds you’re hearing. The headset itself is light and comfortable around the head, preventing any further distractions.
Moving forward, the Rift creates a sense of wonder to the decaying station’s grim halls and gated corridors that I haven’t felt since the first time I walked through them. Everyone remembers the first time they picked up the drinks can and defiantly tossed it at the guard and now I remember it in two different instances. The can dangles in front of you like a carrot on a stick – you feel as if you could reach out and throw it yourself.
That depth is given whole new meaning as I scale a set of boxes and look out of a window I must jump from. There’s a slight pause as I look at the ground, a good six meters down, and momentarily think “I don’t want to do that.” It’s the kind of response I can’t fake; I felt a genuine moment of concern as I stared down before registering that I was still very much playing a videogame. I take the fall and find, if anything, the pain-free, comfortable landing to be off-putting.
Another standout moment comes when journey into the city. A camera drone comes to greet me and I instinctively move my head backwards and tilt it up to get a better view of the floating marvel. It darts about the air and I trace it like I’m bird watching, enamoured by something that I hadn’t given a second’s thought before.
All-in-all I’d spent about 20 minutes with the Oculus Rift. My guide was right; the first 3 minutes didn’t really work. The other 17? Like a dream, quite literally. It speaks volumes about the potential of the headset that it impressed me so much in such a short space of time in a game from 2004. Imagine what developers are going to be able to do with it from here on out. It’s a great start and VRFocus is going to be here to track every step of the journey ahead.