It's hard to believe the Oculus Rift is already celebrating its second birthday. It was one of the biggest launches of 2016 and yet, by most accounts, it was still early days. The years since have provided an opportunity for the headset to stretch its wings a bit – a number of high-profile games have launched on the hardware, and it's received motion controllers in the form of Oculus Touch.
[Update: Oculus Rift could be just a few months away from receiving a standalone companion. The latest rumor is that the Oculus Go, an all-in-one VR headset that doesn't require a phone or PC to operate, will launch at Facebook's F8 developer conference in early May. We already know the Oculus Go price; it'll cost $199 (about £150 / AU$255). If it releases to consumers on May 1, then shoppers will have a cheaper, portable alternative to the Oculus Rift, albeit one that's much less powerful.]
To make matters even better, it's also received a permanent price cut: $399/£399 (around AU$640) for the headset, two sensors and the Touch Controllers. That's a far cry away from the Rift's closest competitor, the HTC Vive, which comes in at an also-reduced price of $499 or £499 (around AU$615).
This price drop could be interpreted in a number of ways. In one sense, it could point to the fact that Oculus Rift sales have been less than what Facebook expected them to be – and the price drop is an attempt to drum up those figures. Another perfectly fine interpretation is that Facebook desperately wants this hardware in customers' hands – even if that means selling it at a loss.
But you're not here for speculation, right? You're here because you're interested in reading about one of the world's coolest, most bleeding-edge technology: VR. Now, after nearly two years with the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR, can we finally say 'virtual reality is here to stay'?
OK, before we dive too deep into the virtues of VR, let's take a moment to talk about the two most important aspects to consider before deciding to buy a Rift of your own: price and the minimum PC requirements.
If you've been following the virtual reality scene you probably know this already, but the Oculus Rift requires a wired connection to a PC in order to have enough power to drive two 1080x1200 resolution images to each lens inside the headset. It can't just be any old run-of-the-mill PC, either – you're going to need a top of the line gaming PC to enjoy everything the Rift has to offer.
Originally, the minimum specs put out by Oculus called for an Intel Core i5 4590 or equivalent processor, 8GB of RAM and an NVIDIA GTX 970 or AMD Radeon 290 video card. Most of the hardcore gaming community might already have these components on hand, but if you're a casual gamer or currently more of a PC layman, these parts will be the first of two costly investments you need to pay for upfront.
Recently, however, that minimum spec has been brought down to an Intel i3-6100, instead of the more expensive Intel i5-4590, and GPUs can now start from the Nvidia GTX 960 from the recommended 970.
That change brings down the cost of the system required to play VR games to around $499 by Oculus's estimates, and says that it's teaming up with Cyberpower to bring pre-made rigs like that to the public.
The other expenditure is the Oculus Rift itself, duh.
When paired with the proper hardware, the Oculus Rift is far superior to PlayStation VR, and light years ahead of Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR, both of which only rely on the power of your cell phone to gaze into the plane of virtual reality. It's not quite as immersive or as capable as the HTC Vive, but I'll touch on that point more in a bit.
So, what exactly are you buying? What does the Oculus Rift do?
How the Oculus Rift works
I've tried my best to explain virtual reality in words and, on multiple occasions, have completely and utterly failed. At best all I can do is paint a half-cocked image in hopes to inspire you to go out and find a friend or coworker with an Oculus Rift of their own who'd be kind enough to let you give it a whirl. Here goes nothing.
Imagine standing on the ledge of a 100-story building. Imagine looking down at the street below you. Imagine the tightening of your stomach and the sense of dread that you might, at any second, fall to your demise.
Now imagine taking one step forward.
You're falling and the world is whipping before you. You're petrified. But you also feel alive. The second right before you hit the ground is the worst – your brain is actually prepared for the moment by dumping adrenaline into your system as a mild painkiller.
But while all this is happening, you haven't actually moved. You've been sitting in a chair in your own home, staring into a screen. Your biometrics have changed, but, geographically speaking, you're exactly where you were 10 minutes ago.
This is what it's like to use virtual reality, to get the experience of being somewhere else in a different time, a different place, sometimes as far as an alien world, all without ever leaving your home.
This product is the fruit of a four-year research project that launched on Kickstarter, made $2 million, then was purchased by one of the most powerful tech companies in the world, Facebook. The Oculus Rift shipping these days is the first commercially available unit – the fourth evolution of the headset that started back in 2012 with Developer Kit 1.
The latest iteration of the headset is significantly better than any of the previous development kits. It's easier to setup thanks to an intuitive program that you're prompted to download when you plug it in, and it takes less technical knowhow to install games and troubleshoot when things go awry.
Like other virtual reality headsets, the Oculus RIft has the arduous task of completely immersing you in a video game by producing two images simultaneously. It does this by hooking into the back of your graphics card's HDMI port and using a camera to track your head movement. You can either sit or stand while wearing the headset, whichever you find more comfortable. But, unlike the HTC Vive, you won't be able to use the hardware inside the box to actually walk around at all (what we commonly refer to as "room-scale VR").
What you'll get inside every Oculus Rift box, however, is the headset itself, the Oculus Sensor, a small Oculus Remote that can be used to control videos and change the volume on the headset, a Xbox One Wireless Controller with 2 AA batteries, an Xbox One controller adapter and extender and Lucky's Tale, a platforming game that is best compared to a 360-degree version of Super Mario Bros. If you pre-ordered the Rift, it also came with EVE: Valkyrie Founder's Pack.
Once you've plugged the headset into the HDMI port on your GPU, the two USB cables from the headset and sensor to two USB 3.0 ports on your PC and the Xbox One controller adapter into a USB 2.0 port on your PC, you're ready to start the short and simple setup process, which only takes about 10 minutes.
What you'll find when you're done is a library of about 100 titles that are longer than anything found on the HTC Vive. I've played a good deal of them, and while some were better than others, there weren't any that I felt were a waste of time or money. I'll cover them in more detail on the next page but, in the broadest of strokes, the Rift is a fun gaming system, even if it's not number one right now.