How Oculus can still claim the Best VR throne

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The Rift already beats the Vive in ergonomics, simplicity and built-in audio – can changes to sensor count and boundaries put it over the top?(Credit: Will Shanklin/New Atlas)

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When we reviewed the two biggest and baddest VR headsets, the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, we thought the Vive was not only the clear winner in the short-term, but also the one with the higher long-term ceiling. Some subtle changes by Oculus leading up to the launch of its Touch controllers, though, paint a picture of a company that just might be making all the right moves in response to its super-sneaky adversary. There's still enough time for the Rift to claim the "Best 1st-gen VR" title that once seemed its birthright – and it may already be on track to doing just that.

It's clear now that Oculus was caught off-guard by its SteamVR rival and its room-scale focus. Even worse, Oculus appeared to initially make the mistake of sticking to a "let's slowly build up to this room-scale thing" strategy. After the Vive launched to largely positive reviews (we loved it), it looks like Oculus has tweaked that strategy a hair in response to the shifted landscape.

The first clue was in late July, when Oculus pushed an update to its software that allowed four sensors to work with its Touch controllers.

To understand the importance of this, we need to take a step back. One of the Vive's big advantages is that it tracks in 360 degrees, so there doesn't always need to be a "right" way to face in games (just like in real life). Earlier this year, it had sounded like two sensors would be the max for Oculus Touch games. Combine that with Rift developers telling us the company was recommending their games should only be tracked in 180 degrees (with two Rift sensors sitting side-by-side instead of in opposite corners), and it sounded like Oculus' "room-scale" answer would fall short.

If a 360-degree VR game is like a half-court game of basketball (a confined one, mind you), then a 180-degree VR game is more like one of those arcade free throw shooting machines you'd find at Chuck E. Cheese. Free movement vs. facing forward 90 percent of the time. From that perspective, it should be no surprise we leaned towards the Vive like Snoop Dogg leans towards a dispensary.

But with Oculus stepping up several months before the Touch launch, announcing support for four sensors, that clearly opens the door to 360-degree tracking on Rift/Touch. Good news #1.

The second bit of good news is probably even bigger. The Vive's Chaperone system (above) is a series of virtual walls that pop up to prevent you from leaving your playing space or smacking into real-world walls, bookshelves or befuddled in-laws. Without something like this, there's no "real" room-scale VR: Blind to the world, Chaperone-less room-scale would be at best clumsy and at worst unsafe.

We weren't sure if the Rift's optical sensors would even allow for something similar to Chaperone. Since the Rift's sensors typically aren't mounted on the wall (instead sitting on top of a desk or PC), they can get moved around much easier than the Vive's wall-mounted sensors can. Would every little bump against them require you to reset the boundaries, repeating a tedious setup process?

We'll have to wait for Oculus' October developer conference to see it in action, but Oculus indeed has an answer for Chaperone. Teased by Product VP Nate Mitchell this week, Guardian is the name for the Facebook-owned company's boundary system and it's the second big key in Oculus' subtle pivot.

If Guardian works at least as well as the Vive's Chaperone, we think the Rift has an excellent chance of pushing the Vive off the throne of the VR landscape. Oculus already had developer support and ergonomics (both in the headset and controllers) on its side. Guardian boundaries and 360-degree tracking have the potential to make the Vive's biggest advantages null and void. If all goes swimmingly, it's hard to see the Rift not becoming our top recommendation, post-Touch.

There are still questions. How much will Oculus Touch cost? How much will all those extra sensors add on? Is a four-sensor setup, including two of them strung across the room via USB cable, too clunky? Will developers have any 360-degree games ready anytime soon? Does all of this work as well as on the Vive?

The takeaway here is that Oculus Connect 3, where all of these questions will likely be answered, is shaping up to be a conference worth keeping an eye or seven on. We'll be on the ground in early October: Stay tuned.

For a refresher on our impressions of the two headsets from earlier this year, you can revisit our Rift and Vive reviews.

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