Oculus evolves, erases handicaps, eyes the future

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Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe and friends showed us where the Rift is heading next

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Over the last few years, we've seen Oculus' events grow from tiny demos at places like CES to more traditional big-budget Silicon Valley dog-and-pony shows. Well, the pooches and ponies were out in full force today, and we're on the ground in San Jose with impressions of the big announcements from Oculus' VR keynote.

The most tangible and timely of today's announcements focused on Oculus Touch, the company's "hand presence" controllers that finally let Rift owners move beyond the gamepad and get their limbs involved. The controllers start shipping on December 6 for US$199, with pre-orders starting on October 10.

While it was little more than a footnote in Oculus' packed presentation, the company promised that true 360-degree room-scale tracking is coming to the Rift with Touch. While the new controllers include one extra positional sensor in the box, Oculus says "those with enough space" can buy a third sensor for $79, which will support more HTC Vive-like experiences where you can move around in all directions without worrying about tracking glitches.

Oculus also reiterated that Guardian, the company's boundary system – equivalent to (and inspired by) the Vive's Chaperone – will ship with Touch. You know, so you can avoid face-plants into houseplants while staggering around your space blindly.

From a competitive standpoint, these last two are huge for the Rift. We found the Vive to be the superior headset at launch earlier this year, but true room-scale and room-scale bounds may give the Rift the overall advantage. Why? The Rift already had a leg-up in game selection, ergonomics (both headset and motion controls) and audio. What's left to set the Vive apart from the Rift?

We haven't yet demoed Guardian or true Rift room-scale (the week is still young). And in one of my Touch demos yesterday (with only two sensors and no Guardian), a staff-member annoyedly kept turning and moving me back to the "right" spot and right direction when I got too movement-happy in a Touch demo. After using the Vive for the last six months, where movement is free and Chaperone tells you when you need to back dat ass up, the Rift demo struck me as tech trumping human instinct.

Today's three-sensor and Guardian changes should, at least in theory, change that.

Touch's pricing also puts the total Rift/motion control package on even ground with the HTC Vive/motion control bundle, at $800. Sort of. To get true room-scale with the Rift, via that third sensor, that total jumps up to about $880. Keep in mind, though, that the Rift still includes a gamepad in the box with the headset, while that's a separate purchase for the Vive. If not quite identical, pricing should come out roughly the same.

Speaking of pricing, Oculus has done some clever reimagining of high-end VR to lower the bar of entry for buying a Rift-ready PC. With its new Asynchronous Spacewarp, the company takes 45 fps app-level rendering and presents it as the standard 90 fps inside the headset, by adding synthetic frames in between. From my understanding, you can think of this as sort of like a 45-page classic flip book of a jockey riding a horse, restored and given new life by adding an extra 45 pages, which approximate where each frame would land in between the original pages.

What this does is lower the hardware requirements for the Rift, enabling cheap new machines like the AMD-based Cyberpower PC that will run $499. That's nearly half of what you had to pay for a VR-ready PC earlier this year. The best VR is still ridiculously expensive, but any movement in the right direction is movement we'll take.

We spent the entire day yesterday playing new Touch games, and while the platform is suffering from a by-the-nerds-for-the-nerds syndrome early on, there were a few fun highlights. Favorites included a VR version of PC game Superhot (above, an assassin-disarming game where the speed of time follows the speed of your movement) and Robo Recall, an expansion on Epic's Bullet Train demo that we saw last year.

The most surprising bit from the list of new game announcements is that Robo Recall will be free (Facebook opens purse strings, plugs fun new game, encourages adoption) when it launches in Q1 of 2017.

This is all fun in the near-term, but from all the announcements in the keynote, we're most excited about the glimpses of longer-term roadmaps, including the social strategy that Oculus previewed. Mark Zuckerberg gave his most in-depth Oculus onstage pitch to date, showing us in-development VR experiences where you can:

  • meet up with friends in both virtual and live-streamed "real" environments
  • see your friends (and vice versa) as avatars complete with facial expressions and features that at least strive to resemble the real person – think The Sims meets the Metaverse
  • while inside these VR environments, engage in all sorts of silliness with your friends, like watching videos, fencing with cartoon weapons or playing tabletop games
  • invite a friend who isn't using a VR headset into the party via video chat

After being bombarded with early VR games aimed squarely at the gaming/early-adopting crowd, these social features start to paint a picture of how VR may start to crack a more mainstream audience. Maybe. At the very least, it shows a company that's aware of the pitfalls of painting itself into a corner with only geekier audiences, and is ultimately eyeing the prize of people whose lives don't revolve around gawking at new gear.

Oh, and Oculus teased a standalone VR headset (above, Oculus Rift 2, perhaps?) that uses inside-out tracking, as opposed to the external sensors and base stations we have today, to let you walk around spaces, completely wire-free. The gist of this part of the keynote was "we're working on this, we have working prototypes and they're awesome." Still, if you're wondering where VR is going next, consider this a Magic 8-Ball pointing to what we might be talking about in a couple of years.

For more on the concepts that we could be talking about down the road, you can check out our expanded thoughts on Oculus' burgeoning social aspects.

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