Quick Review: Oculus Rift (game-toy-thing, 2016)

30 Jan

Before I start, it is important to make one thing clear: even if I were inclined to give this thing a positive review, I would recommend not buying it because it is made by assholes.

Further disclaimer: I am basing this review on a relatively short trial experience (which I probably wouldn’t even have bothered with if I’d remembered about the assholes); I happened to be in a Best Buy store where a salesperson was giving demos and my father and I were both talked into trying it out. I think I saw enough to get a pretty good impression of what it’s like, but for the record I spent at most 10-15 minutes with the thing so that’s probably worth acknowledging.

What is Oculus Rift? Apparently released in March of last year, it’s a virtual reality headset thing with stereoscopic display and so forth; it seems to have been designed with gaming primarily in mind but they claim it can serve other purposes also.

Let’s address the elephant in the room first: there are substantial accessibility issues with this thing. Even just for someone like me, who wears glasses (I am severely myopic and would be considered legally blind if my vision were not correctable), it ended up being rather uncomfortable and cumbersome. I could not put on the headset without help, and even that proved difficult and required two attempts. Then as the demo went on I’m pretty sure my glasses became disaligned, because the images became increasingly blurry and “depth perception” or the illusion thereof became increasingly difficult. I really do not think this thing is usable for people who do not have decent uncorrected vision, or else something like contact lenses or LASIK (neither of which appeal to me anyway for a variety of reasons, but regardless I certainly can’t say in good conscience it would be worth pursuing them for the ability to use a VR gizmo).

(It also requires you to have a Windows PC with very high-end graphics card, in addition to the already-expensive headset unit. So there’s another strike against it for most potential users, and renders laughable the makers’ claims that it could serve as escapism for downtrodden people if those claims hadn’t been ludicrous already.)

And then there’s the control scheme (I’m not sure if there are others, there could be interchangeable options for all I know, but at very least the setup they used in the demo seems to be the default and the one that came with the set). There were two controllers, one for each hand; each had an analog stick (which the demos didn’t use), two buttons on top by the thumb, and buttons they called “grip” and “trigger” for the other fingers. Credit where credit’s due, the things are at least comfortable to hold, but actually doing anything with them beyond just moving the hands about (again, credit where credit’s due, that did track well) felt really clunky and none of the gestures were anywhere near natural (for example: to point with the index finger, you first need to make a fist and press the buttons, then release one of them.)

It’s probably theoretically possible to design a game that feels natural with that controller, but none of the demo things got anywhere near that; the closest anything I saw got to being natural was squeezing the buttons to grab a thing (and even then, that was for a basketball game Dad tried and that was literally just “squeeze to pick up, release to throw”; I guess it did a decent job of altering the trajectory based on the one-handed throwing motion, but considering it was one-handed throwing I thought basketball was a really weird design choice). I suppose it could be uncharitable of me to judge this thing so harshly based on a tech demo, but it seems indicative of the general thought processes behind it. It didn’t take me long at all to come up with some ways I think would work better: for instance, instead of a controller you hold, how about controlling the thing with gloves? To start with, I’d suggest putting bend sensors down the backs of the fingers, and buttons in the palm to detect a closed fist. That still requires a fair amount of manual dexterity to control, but should be capable of detecting more complex gestures that still feel closer to things you’d normally do. I’m not sure how they do the positional tracking but you could just as easily put that in a glove as a controller (put a box containing the hardware on the back of the hand if need be; it doesn’t have to look pretty).

So what did this thing do well? It actually did make a bit of an impression on me with the visual tracking: being able to turn your head and have the view follow accordingly really does help give the impression that you’re looking at a larger scene. Likewise with the virtual hands following the controllers; that was good enough to trigger a bit of an uncanny valley impression (these hands aren’t mine but they move when I move my hands, etc). That core technology and concepting seems pretty solid, and I suspect a game designed properly to take maximum advantage of that could work well. And the visuals did look pretty good, until my glasses slipped the tiniest bit and everything went blurry (and got increasingly blurrier over time).

As for the demo I actually got to play… I had mixed feelings about it.

The salesman described it to me as “be a wizard and throw fireballs” which was enough to get me to choose that one without knowing the other options (there were four; one was the basketball Dad tried, one was rock-climbing, and I don’t know what the fourth was) and it did some things well and some things badly. It’s also the main reason I felt like writing about this thing, I think, considering I can’t seem to stop myself complaining about things involving wizards. Quelle surprise.

To start with, once again there was a bit of an uncanny valley problem with the hands. They were different to the hands in the menu, looked small to me even on the “large hands” option (for what it’s worth, I do have unusually large hands) and the fingers were all the same length (I think they were meant to look slightly bent/cupped, but the fingers just looked stubby and wrong; I ended up calling them something like “creepy awful Donald Trump hands”, which is definitely not an association I want to be making in anything I’m going to use for entertainment).

The demo walked you through four different spells you could cast with different gestures, then threw you into a battle where you could use them. I want to talk about each of the spells in turn because they each raise different issues and irritated me in different ways.

First there were the fireballs. The right hand changed to have a “lava” texture (again, uncanny valley, this looked like it should hurt and made me do a double-take) and then you could press and hold a button to make the fireball form (which looked pretty cool, admittedly), then make a throwing motion while releasing the button to throw it. There were explosion effects. So far, so good. The problem was the trajectories the things took made no sense. They didn’t fly straight, but they also didn’t arc nearly as much as I expected; I think the game wanted you to use a baseball-esque motion while throwing them but they flew more like I’d expect from a shot put motion, but regardless I’m comfortable saying the ballistics were thoroughly weird and felt off. Some of this could be due to the vision issues with my glasses getting disaligned (and that got worse as things went on) but I don’t think all of it is attributable to that, and I found myself getting more and more frustrated by my inability to hit anything.

Secondly there was a shield, which I actually liked. It worked by holding a button on the left controller, and created a circular field centred on the left hand you could move around (it blocked projectiles and reflected them back). That was the one action out of the four that felt intuitive and natural to me.

Those two were at least straightforward. The third was just weird. There was a blacksmith hammer you could grab, at which point it made an anvil appear; you play whack-a-mole with glowing spots on the anvil. After hitting three glowing spots, the hammer transformed into a lightning-javelin-thing you could throw. I don’t even know what to say really: it made no sense whatsoever and was detrimental to any kind of VR immersion by dint of being that nonsensical. I guess a sort of minigame thing can work as a game mechanic, but if they wanted to make you feel like a smith it failed utterly (it’s not like there was even a javelin on the anvil they could try to convince you you were making) and all of the actions were so disconnected it just felt stupid. And then it wasn’t even worth using, because you couldn’t shield while holding the javelin ready so it was better to just use the fireballs anyway (maybe it did more damage or something? And it seemed to fly straighter than the fireballs but that didn’t make it any easier to hit with).

The fourth spell was similarly bizarre nonsense. If you held both hands up, some kind of blue lightning would connect them; then a bunch of random bottle rockets appeared in midair and lit their fuses on the lightning (?) and shot off into the distance. I actually liked the first half, the lightning effect looked cool and involved the hands in an intuitive way, but they needed to find some other use for it instead of the stupid nonsensical fireworks. Instead, once again, I found it stupid and ruined immersion. (More explicitly, I didn’t mind the fireworks as a sort of tutorial gimmick to show how the spell was meant to be used, and at first I assumed that’s what they were, but being part of the actual spell they just felt stupid.)

So basically the demo taught you these four actions, then had some kind of demon guy (?) (I couldn’t see in detail by that point) appear for you to fight. It just teleported between a few preset locations and occasionally shot fireballs that could be reflected back with the shield. It wasn’t terribly interesting, but at the same time it was incredibly frustrating to me because the aiming was so bad I could only reliably hit it with the shield reflection thing. And the demo wouldn’t end until I won the fight, hence the frustration; by that point I’d definitely seen enough. I did eventually manage it, but by then I was thoroughly fed up and wanted the experience to be over. And as I said, it didn’t take long to reach that point because I’m pretty sure I spent less than 10-15 minutes with the thing.

I don’t know if the aiming issues had to do with the way it was handling “depth perception”, the wonky ballistics (which could have been tied to the depth issues), or the vision blurring issues with my glasses, but regardless it wasn’t much fun.

Also, by the end I was definitely starting to experience uncomfortable eyestrain, and was relieved to have it end. This despite the salesman going out of his way to claim it wouldn’t do that, and wouldn’t cause headaches, etc (he made explicit comparisons to Nintendo’s Virtual Boy which was infamous for that sort of thing back in the day). I suppose it’s possible that it was caused by issues with my glasses rather than the device itself, but those are not independent and that just goes back to the accessibility issues I was talking about earlier.

I do think there was some potential that could have been expanded on; the demo game I played definitely showed a bit of promise in places (as I said above) but fell down in others. With a bit of iteration and feedback I can see it being possible to design games specifically for this thing that would be immersive and fun. But I don’t think it’s anywhere near that point now; mostly it reminded me of the early Wii games, with tacked-on suboptimal motion controls that felt gimmicky and were obviously there to capitalise on the novelty.

And without those specially-designed games, I just can’t see any point to the thing. I think there’s also an option to watch movies and such on it, but I can’t see the point unless they’re specially filmed with a sort of panoramic view larger than the display area so you can look around and focus where you want. Likewise with playing games that aren’t designed for it; it would just be a lot of discomfort to no practical purpose. As it stands, I couldn’t imagine using a thing like this on any sort of regular basis, the brief demo experience was more than enough for me and I have no desire to try it again any time soon. I could only recommend buying it as a sort of novelty gimmick thing, if you have too much excess money somehow and want a goofy thing to exhibit and mess around with at parties.

Except even then, don’t buy it, because, you know, made by assholes.


Posted by on January 30, 2017 in mitchell


Tags: , , ,

4 responses to “Quick Review: Oculus Rift (game-toy-thing, 2016)

  1. Alícia F.

    February 3, 2017 at 8:33 am

    Thanks for the review, it’s very helpful. Lately I have been seeing this VR thing everywhere and it’s good to know that my suspicions about it were correct: has potential, but is still too green. To be honest, what worries me the most is the eyestrain/headache issue. This kind of technology could end up creating new kinds of visual impairments and injuries, similar to what’s happening with regular screens and computer vision syndrome (which I have, and it’s a pain).

    Also… I had no idea the creators supported He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Yikes. D:

    • mcbender

      February 4, 2017 at 10:18 pm

      I have to admit it made an impression on me (both in the good and the bad), otherwise I probably wouldn’t have bothered writing about it.

      I’m not sure how concerned to be about the eyestrain thing – Dad and I both found it uncomfortable after our brief demos, but at the same time we both wear glasses and that could well have been the source of the problem. I don’t know how people with good uncorrected vision would experience it, nor whether it might cause problems in the long term. I’d want to see some clinical study results before making claims about its safety (though truthfully I don’t know how you would study it), and I have no idea what the salesman’s claims of “no headaches, no eyestrain” were based on because he did not tell me (and for better or worse, I didn’t think to ask afterward, there were other people waiting and we wanted to get going).

  2. Derived Absurdity

    February 3, 2017 at 6:14 pm

    To be fair, is there *any* millionaire libertarian tech bro in existence who doesn’t have terrible politics/morals? It would have surprised me if the dude didn’t support Trump, honestly.

    As for the Oculus Rift… yeah. I’ve heard some truly great things about it, but some also not-so-great, like this. Maybe in about twenty years it’ll get all the kinks worked out.

    • mcbender

      February 4, 2017 at 10:09 pm

      I think you’re begging the question a bit there, “libertarian tech bro” pretty much implies terrible politics and morals (look up the “Dark Enlightenment” someday if you want to be horrified, it’s basically geeks with a superiority complex doing naive pseudophilosophy and placing a thin intellectual veneer over fascism). I utterly despise techbros, which is one of many reasons I’ve been largely stuck working below my pay grade and not making use of my computer engineering degree. (At some point I’ve really got to tell some of my job horror stories, maybe eventually I’ll get round to that…)

      [Edited to add: I’ve met techbros who were early-adopter Trump supporters, which strikes me as a different flavour of evil to the ones who jumped on the bandwagon later. A lot of e.g. the gamergate/MRA/etc crowd really loved Trump for being a sexual predator, for instance.]

      That’s not to say that you’re wrong, because the industry really is full of awful people. But at the same time there are degrees of awfulness, and some people at least have the decency to hide it (and certainly not all of them are as awful as their customers). And when they spout it this openly I can’t help thinking there’s a moral imperative to boycott.


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