Hands-on (or eyes-on) with the new and improved Oculus Rift

After months and months of absorbing hype and quietly pining for its touch, I got to try the Oculus Rift Wednesday at CES 2014, as part of an Intel demo. It's a vastly impressive piece of technology, but there are still rough edges to be ironed out.

If you're not familiar, the Oculus Rift is essentially the latest in virtual reality for video gamers. It's a pair of displays one for each eye - that sit in front of your face and changes to reflect the position of your head. Look around while wearing it and it's as if you're looking around a video game environment, in full 3D. Dev kits are available, but a finalized retail version isn't due for months.

In person, the Oculus Rift looks a bit like an overweight set of ski goggles. It fits snugly but not uncomfortably over your face, and was even able to accommodate my rather bulky eyeglasses as I sat down to play a quick round of EVE: Valkyrie against three other participants. It's a noticeable weight, but looking around still feels very natural and the perspective shifts are spot-on.

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Valkyrie is a relatively simple space combat simulator, set in the world of the popular MMO Eve Online, which I and my competitors played using a gamepad. You flit through space in a single-seat fighter craft and attempt to do violence to the other players before they do unto you. As a showcase for the Oculus, it's useful in its simplicity, though I didn't find it particularly enthralling in and of itself. (A guy I chatted briefly with in line won by a heavy margin. I took second place.)

My verdict: The Oculus Rift is amazing, frankly. As a devotee of flight simulation games, I can't imagine a better peripheral. In a three-minute demo of a game I didn't even like all that much, I nevertheless had half a dozen minor but noticeable "wow" experiences, like looking at an enemy through the top canopy of my fighter as I hauled the nose up for a cannon shot. I'd give a lot to try the Oculus in a flight sim I know better, like IL-2: Sturmovik or DCS: A-10C.

It is not, however, perfect - the colors were a bit washed out, which I'm guessing could have something to do with the 3D effect of the twinned displays, and despite Oculus' claims of improved resolution (1080p) I thought objects still seemed slightly pixelated.

Having not had the chance to compare it to earlier versions of the device which were lower-res and featured less comprehensive head tracking, which apparently led to motion sickness in some users I can't report on how much progress has been made, but, to my mind, the Oculus Rift is getting close to being ready for prime time. When it hits retail, hopefully with those minor rough edges sanded down, I'll certainly be looking to pick one up.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.

Read more: UNSW researchers see future for Oculus Rift in engineering

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