CES 2015 was packed with different virtual reality headsets, and it feels like we’ve been on the cusp of consumer VR for years. Oculus Rift hasn’t released their consumer version yet, and other companies are trying to beat them to market.
The Oculus Rift Kickstarter campaign launched back in 2012. It’s now 2015, and Oculus is on their third prototype. So, when can us gamers and enthusiasts get our hands on one?
Oculus Rift Crescent Bay Could Be the Consumer Release
I had a chance to try the Oculus Rift “Crescent Bay” prototype demo at CES 2015. First, let me make something clear: While I’ve always been excited by the potential of virtual reality, I was actually very disappointed when I tried Oculus’s first dev kit. The lack of positional head tracking and low-resolution that let me “see the pixels” made for a turn-off. I also tried the Samsung Gear VR at CES 2015, which was better — but still not particularly amazing.
The Oculus Rift Crescent Bay demo still managed to wow me. It’s a standing demo, and you’re free to look around, crouch, and lean as you experience it. The screen is now high-resolution and the head tracking makes for a much more immersive experience. You can lean in to get a closer look at something. You can crouch to crouch in the virtual world. You could get down on your hands and knees and press your head to the floor — you’d be staring at the virtual floor.
The headset is much more lightweight, and it even includes built-in headphones. New at CES 2015 was 3D positional audio support, too.
Oculus has previously released two “dev kits” targetted at developers. Typical users and enthusiasts were told to wait. The Crescent Bay prototype I experienced isn’t yet available even to developers, and Oculus is clearly working on that. Based on what I experienced, the Crescent Bay prototype could easily become the first consumer release of the Oculus Rift. It certainly works much better than the units other manufacturers are showing off and will be releasing.
As Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe told The Verge at CES 2015, “We’re starting to lock in on certain components that we’re going to use for the consumer V1. Optically, screen-wise, form factor, audio-wise, a lot of those are really, really close, if not already locked for what the consumer version is going to be.”
Having seen the Crescent Bay prototype in person, I believe it — 2015 could be the year we get our hands on this stuff for real.
Oculus Told Me to Just Buy the Dev Kit
Oculus has released two products, and both of them are branded “dev kits” intended for developers who want to start making VR experiences. I asked an Oculus Rift representative at CES 2015, and I was told there was still no consumer release date. After a bit of prodding — after all, there were other VR headsets on the show floor that were trying to beat them to market — I was told that I could just buy a dev kit if I wanted virtual reality now. I told the representative that the website says only developers should buy those, and she responded with a shrug.
Maybe Oculus is playing a bit of a game here. Perhaps the Crescent Bay prototype will come out as only a “dev kit,” but we’ll all still be able to order one. Having experienced the Crescent Bay prototype, I’m definitely buying the Crescent Bay hardware when it comes out, whether it’s branded a dev kit or not. Heck, the Oculus representative even advised me to!
This would allow enthusiasts to buy into the product while encouraging the average consumer to stay away. It also might help set expectations correctly — after all, if something doesn’t work quite right, you’re still just using a dev kit.
One potential speed-bump could be the lack of ideal VR input devices. Oculus is making their own input method, and they’ve said it’s on the way. They’re not sure whether they’ll release the consumer headset with the input device or just have users use Xbox controllers and similar gamepads.
Samsung Gear VR, Powered by Oculus
Oculus has actually sort-of released a consumer VR headset in collaboration with Samsung, and it’s something I also tried at CES. They were demonstrating them at both the Samsung and Oculus booths at CES 2015.
The Gear VR is a special headset for the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. If you have this specific phone and the headset, you can slot in the phone and put the headset on your face to experience virtual reality. At CES, the demo was a Cirque du Soleil show playing on the headset, and you could move your head to the left or right to see other bits of the show playing around you. This wasn’t being rednered — it was a recorded video of a show being played back. Unlike the Crescent Bay prototype, the Gear VR lacked the all-important positional head tracking — you can turn your head, but not lean or move it in other ways.
But this is a consumer product you can buy today — well, if you also want to buy a Galaxy Note. Oculus is working on their “Oculus VR Store” that runs on the Gear VR. It’s not hard to see this as a testing bed for all the software that will be used in the final consumer release of the Oculus Rift itself.
The Oculus Rift Crescent Bay prototype certainly works much better than the Gear VR, which is already a released product. This is yet another reason the Crescent Bay prototype could actually launch as a consumer product in 2015.
Competing Virtual Reality Headsets Don’t Work as Well, But They’re Coming
CES 2015 was packed with other virtual-reality headsets, too. Razer’s “Open Source VR Hacker Dev Kit” got a lot of attention, pushing an Android-like open platform for virtual reality. This isn’t designed to be a finished product, but a competing platform.
Wandering around the show floors to the farthest corners, I even saw devices like the “Bee Noculus” mobile virtual reality headset. No, it’s not an Oculus — it’s a Noculus. Whether Oculus wants to release their headset in 2015 or not, they may be pushed to. The Crescent Bay prototype was by far the best virtual reality headset of the show, and worse ones are coming out in 2015, whether Oculus wants them to or not.
Initially, gamers will be the big audience for virtual reality. That much is clear, and even game developers are excited. Big-name AAA games like Alien: Isolation are shipping with hidden virtual reality modes because developers are so excited to play with it. You’ll want a powerful gaming computer to power this stuff, anyway.
In the longer run, VR will have more uses. Watching videos (especially ones recorded in 360-degrees) — movies or even live sports or performances — could be huge. Samsung’s Gear VR is already being used for such things. Other uses like meetings and communication are obvious, too. 2015 may be the year we all get our hands on these.