Oculus Rift review: Touch puts the Rift back in control

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New Atlas reviews the Oculus Rift with excellent Touch controllers (Credit: Will Shanklin/New Atlas)

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Buzz has surrounded VR since the Oculus Rift Kickstarter in 2012, attracting companies big and small. The competition heated up enough that when the consumer Rift launched early this year, we didn't think it was the best system. But with Oculus' excellent new Touch controllers, combined with some strategic pivots, the Rift has reclaimed the VR throne that once seemed its birthright. The Oculus Rift is finally complete and consumer virtual reality has its champion.

Oculus Touch is the most ergonomic, comfortable and fun-to-use motion control setup in VR. While the tracked controllers of its only true rival, the HTC Vive, are also very good, it's clear when you jump straight from one to the other – as we have for the last couple weeks – that Touch's smaller size and comfortable contours better capture what Oculus calls "hand presence." Being able to use your hands inside virtual worlds.

It isn't, however, just the palm-hugging ergonomics of Oculus Touch that put it ahead. It's also little details like being able to lift your index finger to point at something in VR or raising your real thumb to give a virtual thumbs-up. The Rift isn't tracking those fingers with its external sensors (we aren't quite at the level of true "finger presence" yet), but Oculus cleverly put capacitive touch sensors on the controllers' surfaces so they know when you lift these digits. It's pseudo-finger-tracking, something the Vive doesn't offer.

The controllers include a second sensor in the box, in addition to the first that ships with the Rift headset. While the tracking has been pinpoint accurate, there are caveats. Oculus Touch launch games were designed to track in 180 degrees, so they only encourage you to face forward or sideways – never to turn your back and block the sightlines between hands and sensors. If you do turn completely away with the standard two-sensor setup, you will likely run into some blind spots where hand-tracking gets wonky.

We might have docked points for this, if not for a) games having been designed so you never need to do that, and b) Oculus offering owners the option of ordering a third sensor, including a long extension cord, for US$79. It does what it's supposed to do: sit behind you, enabling 360-degree tracking and eliminating blind spots.

The Rift's three-sensor setup is terrific for standing VR games where you don't move around much, but it doesn't match the Vive's tracking for room-scale VR in larger spaces. Using the Rift in the same 12 x 9 ft. space where we've been using the Vive, we ran into some big Oculus Touch tracking issues near the edges. Shrinking it down to 8 x 9 ft. mostly solved that, though one corner still had wonky hand-tracking.

It would have been nice to see Vive-level room-scale VR on the Rift, but that may not be possible with today's camera-based sensors (the Vive uses an inverse laser tracking system, where the headset and controllers find their own positions in space). Even with its imperfections, though, we think the Rift's smaller-room VR is a solid-enough alternative.

With 360-degree tracking now an option for Rift owners, the company also added a visual boundary system that prevents you from leaving your space and smacking into things. Equivalent to the Vive's Chaperone bounds, Oculus' version is dubbed "Guardian."

Oculus' Guardian is better than Chaperone, though, in that you can trace the entire edge of your playing space, including irregular sections that jut in and out. Vive's Chaperone only supports straight lines forming a rectangle; Guardian better captures the subtler nuances of an imperfect playing space.

Otherwise Guardian works exactly like Chaperone: The virtual wall stays invisible until you get near the edge of your designated space, at which point it pops into view. It triggers your don't-smack-into-walls instinct, startling you into putting on the brakes.

So Oculus Touch is a big ergonomic advantage for the Rift, and the additions of 360 tracking, room-scale and Guardian help. But it's content that seals the deal for the Oculus Rift as our pick for best VR headset.

Oculus Touch has a deep, refined and varied launch lineup, dwarfing what we've seen so far from the Vive. Add that to the Rift's already-superior selection of gamepad-based games, and Oculus' aggressive funding of VR projects is proving to be a big tipping point.

While we've enjoyed playing Vive games in our offices throughout this year, all but a small handful have felt more like rough drafts than finished products. Back when the Rift was gamepad-only and we assumed more polished Vive content wasn't far away, that unfinished nature was more forgivable. But with Oculus Touch showing off its refined launch library, it makes for a starker contrast.

Robo Recall, launching in early 2017 for the Oculus Rift

Highlights among early Oculus Touch games include:

  • Superhot: manipulate time to thwart would-be assassins
  • Robo Recall (coming early 2017): the furiously-paced, full-game manifestation of demo Bullet Train
  • Dead & Buried: online wild-west shootouts
  • I Expect You to Die: escape-the-room puzzles set in a James Bond parody world
  • The Unspoken: gesture-based, online-multiplayer spell-casting
  • VR Sports Challenge: caricatured athletic mini-games
  • Viral EX: on-rails shooter ported from Gear VR, now using Touch controls for guns
  • Job Simulator: hilarious workplace sandbox
  • Final Approach: use your hands to trace flight patterns for air traffic (more fun than it sounds)

There are also two lovely art-creation apps: Medium, where you sculpt 3D designs with the Touch controls (you can then export your creations into traditional 3D-design software) and Quills, a 3D paint/drawing app that's very similar to the Vive's Tilt Brush.

Throw in gamepad-only favorites like Damaged Core, Edge of Nowhere, Defense Grid 2, Chronos, Eagle Flight and Lucky's Tale (among many others), and the Rift's content lead is substantial and definitive.

If you're interested in virtual reality, owning the very best is going to cost a pretty penny. For the Oculus Rift along with a minimum-spec gaming PC, Touch controls and third sensor, you're looking at a $1,380 minimum. It's easy to see why some people look at the VR landscape and decide that Sony's cheaper PlayStation VR is the answer (we beg to differ: its motion controls have illusion-breaking tracking).

History shows us that budding consumer technologies start expensive but get cheaper over time – VR should follow the same pattern. Today's big question isn't whether to spend more on the Rift or less on Sony's flawed system; it's whether to splurge now or hold off another year or so. As Oculus demoed in October, there's a fully wireless Rift somewhere in the pipeline (though we have also demoed accessories that enable wireless play for the current Rift and Vive). With a VR-ready Xbox waiting in the wings, we might see better console-based VR in late 2017.

We don't have a universal answer to the now vs. later question: As much as we love the Rift today, it simply isn't in the budget for a large number of people (for some perspective, a full Rift setup is around the same price as two iPhone 7 smartphones, but $120 less than a current-gen MacBook Pro).

If you are looking for some high-end VR today – and don't mind splurging – the Oculus Rift with Touch controls has the simplest setup (basically plug-and-play), the best ergonomics (both headset and controls), integrated audio and virtual reality's premier content library.

The biggest gripes we have are the imperfect larger-space tracking and the lack of current games and apps made specifically for 360-degree room-scale VR. Even with those caveats, though, the Rift's handling of smaller-room/standing VR is terrific – and the corresponding content is phenomenal and plentiful.

The Oculus Rift has been available since March, while the essential Touch controls began shipping in early December. The Rift will set you back $599; add another $199 for Touch and $79 for the (optional) third sensor that will give you 360° tracking. And don't forget a VR-ready gaming PC.

Product page: Oculus

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Editor's note: While this review referred to Oculus Rift games and HTC Vive games as distinct entities, in many cases the Rift can play SteamVR games and with third-party hacks the Vive can play Oculus Store games. We classified them separately because cross-compatibility isn't guaranteed, with potential for hardware inconsistencies (like finger-tracking with the Touch controls) and a more cumbersome user experience.

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