Trying out the Oculus Rift

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I just got back from a trip around the solar system via the Oculus Rift.

I’m no stranger to VR: I bought and read a lot of VR-related books in the early 90s, owned a Nintendo Power Glove (which I connected to my PC for some basic homebrew VR), ran a VR-themed BBS, and my first gaming experience was playing Dactyl Nightmare when a travelling Virtuality exhibit came to my college.

This was my first experience with the Oculus, however.

I had a gift certificate for two at the Sim Center so my daughter and I wanted to take “the trip” together. We were in the same room, sitting next to each other in comfy chairs, but the Rift headsets were connected to their own separate Windows PCs (which I noticed on the screen were not activated 🙂 ). The employee tried to start the simulations on each PC at the same time, but as it turned out my daughter was about 30 seconds ahead of me the entire time (spoiler alerts!).

After putting on the Oculus and making some minor adjustments to the fit and focus, I found myself at the controls of a jet-like spaceship. The Space Sim is a “guided” tour of the solar system so I didn’t have any control other than being able to look around in 360 degrees (doing some research after the fact, I found it was actually Discovering>Space 2 which does have controls). The most disconcerting thing was I had no body! Looking down I could see the seat of the ship, but no legs. I knew I was holding up my hands in front of my face, but couldn’t see them. Other than that slightly jarring disconnect, the 360 degree VR view outside the spaceship’s canopy was incredible (there was even a “distortion” in the curved glass). I could even lean over and look down beneath the ship (although when I did this on the right side, I bonked my head on a real-world pillar that was too close to my chair … poor room layout!).

For the next 30 minutes my daughter and I flew from Earth, to the sun, and then traveled (via wormholes) all the way out to Neptune and back (sorry, Pluto!), marveling at the sites (which used a combination of computer animation and actual space imagery), listening to the guide, and learning facts (how did I not know about Saturn’s hexagon?).

Just a few minor gripes:

  • near the end of the trip (after about 30 minutes) I started getting a headache from the Oculus … a combination of the head straps and the visor pressing against my forehead
  • since this was a public setting, the visor had a disposable paper lining around the eye openings … this started sliding down as I kept adjusting the visor and eventually was fluttering by one of my nostrils, which was annoying as I couldn’t get it back up and out of the way
  • the “guide” was sometimes hard to understand. She would mispronounce words (like “eye-oh-ess atmosphere” instead of “Io’s atmosphere”) and the pacing was off. I spoke with one of the employees and she told me they are using Microsoft’s text-to-speech (Cortana?) and have to continue to “tweak” the script. She said once they had “Sun.” at the end of a sentence and the software read it out as “Sunday” so it’s not perfect.

Still, it was a really cool experience. Maybe I need to get my own Oculus so I can do some retro Polygon Nightmare gaming. 😀

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