When you visit with enough companies at CES, you start to develop a sixth sense. All of them are ambitious, and some have promising – or even very good – products. But when something is really special, you can just tell. Oculus VR is one of those companies. We're hardly the first to say this, but the Oculus Rift is the future – and, with all due respect, none of the other companies trying to hop aboard the VR gravy train are anywhere close.
While Oculus VR has an open booth at CES this year (complete with Space Mountain-length lines), we were able to meet with Product VP Nate Mitchell behind closed doors. The purpose? To chat about the company and get our first hands-on with the latest "Crescent Bay" prototype, now with positional audio.
It's no secret that Oculus VR is the innovative force behind the burgeoning VR craze, but we see a company that hasn't let its feet off the gas pedal, and is still innovating at a furious pace. Compared to the DK2 (and the "Crystal Cove" prototype that it's largely based on), Crescent Bay has a sharper display, weighs less and has a faster refresh rate.
Crescent Bay also, as we mentioned, uses positional audio technology that's similar to what you'd hear in a movie theater: if there's an explosion to your left, it sounds like it's coming from the left. Only here, in the 360-degree world of VR, if you turn your head to face it, it will then sound like it's coming from in front of you. It's a subtle touch, but it only adds to the completely immersive quality of the product.
With Crescent Bay, the virtual worlds around you look more realistic, and the "man behind the curtain" (the technology making this all happen) shows its hand less and less.
And with game developers and content creators having had a couple years with the two dev kits already, there's a wealth of content that's ready and waiting to take you there. Every impatient gripe that the consumer Rift isn't here yet is going to evaporate when it launches with a robust game and software library. We get the impression that the publicly shared PC demos for the DK2 are just the tip of the iceberg of what's in the pipeline.
For our impressions of the general experience of Oculus' virtual reality, you can revisit our Crystal Cove hands-on from last year and our Gear VR review from last month. But the Crescent Bay prototype shows a maturity in the platform, which makes us suspect that the countdown to the first consumer version (CV1) may be winding down. The company still, however, doesn't have anything to announce on that front.
This time around our demo was a non-interactive montage of 360-degree experiences, designed to spark our imaginations about what this sucker will be able to do. It succeeded.
Running on an Nvidia GTX980-powered PC, the demo ran extremely smoothly, in an unknown razor-sharp resolution (we suspect a Quad HD Galaxy Note 4 display panel inside, but the company is staying tight-lipped on that front). The demo's production quality was AAA level, showing that new parent company Facebook's purse strings are being put to good use.
The demo took us for an exhilarating peek over the edge of a skyscraper's roof, a Pixar-like animated short and a final action-packed sci-fi battle scene that would make Michael Bay blush. We used to see the Oculus Rift strictly as a gaming device, but 360-degree movies are going to be huge too. The headset teleports you in ways that no other kind of content (and no other current VR headset) can compare to.
Once content creators have time to spread their wings and learn the medium, it's going to make today's entertainment look a little boring. Looking at today's content will be like going from the Ultra HD curved TVs we've seen at CES back to the boxy, low-res TV sets from 1999 .
On other fronts, Mitchell reiterated to us that the Oculus Store in the Gear VR (Samsung's Galaxy Note-powered VR headset) is going to start selling paid apps early this year. He also mentioned that the company has been holding back content, specifically for that launch (that also explains the every-Tuesday new content dumps we've seen since the headset launched).
In the big picture, Mitchell sees the Gear VR as the slightly lighter-weight sibling of the Oculus Rift. Of course full-blown gaming PCs will be more powerful, but before long, he says the Gear VR will catch up with where the Crescent Bay prototype is right now (though, by then, the Rift will be even farther along). It's going to be a game of lead/follow with the Rift and Gear.
Though we still don't know exactly when the Oculus Rift CV1 will launch, there are a few things to keep in mind right now.
First, it's going to require a powerful gaming machine (the ability to run high-res content at 90 fps will be a minimal requirement), so, if you're interested in Oculus and don't already own a gaming PC, you might want to start looking into that now. Mitchell does tell us that you shouldn't need to worry too much about upgrade woes, as today's powerful graphics cards will still fit the bill for the CV1 (like, for example, that Nvidia GTX980 powering our demo).
Also the company is still floating the US$300-400 price range for the CV1 (the DK2 costs developers $350). If you don't already own a gaming rig, the Rift itself is going to be the smallest part of your purchase. You're looking at $1,000 or more for the PC and another $300-400 for the headset.
There isn't much more to say, except that every new thing we see from this company is far ahead of what it showed us the last time. During a long week of hearing companies try really hard to sound like they have the next big thing, this is one company that doesn't have to try. Its results do all the work for it.