2015 is the year that virtual reality goes mainstream. Yeah, yeah, we probably said the same thing back in 1992 when The Lawnmower Man came out, but this time we’re serious. With Sony, HTC, Valve, Samsung and others all looking to get in on the immersive headset action, there are major players spending a lot of cash to get these things in your home.
The leader of the pack, and literal kickstarter of this entire new-wave VR trend is Oculus, with its Oculus Rift headset. While we’re still waiting on a release date for the consumer version of the kit, you can still experience Oculus’s VR in its early stages right now. Here’s how to get your computer ready for the virtual reality worlds heading your way.
How to Buy an Oculus Rift DK 2 Headset
Oculus Rift in its consumer form isn’t technically available to buy yet. It’s still in development, and the finished, mass produced product will likely look vastly different to what we’ve seen so far. However, you can pick up a developers kit, the same unit that devs are using now to create the first Oculus Rift experiences.
The Development Kit 2 (otherwise known as the DK 2) is available direct from Oculus for $350 (about £235).
What Can the Development Kit 2 Do?
With a resolution of 960 x 1080 per eye, the DK 2 gives a good sense of exactly what the commercial Oculus Rift will feel like. Popping on the headset, you’ll be able to look around virtual worlds by turning your head, with depth movements (such as leaning forward) measured by a positional tracker. With a refresh rate as high as 75Hz, the headset makes use of a low persistence OLED display, which should eliminate the blur and judder which makes motion sickness occur.
As the name suggests, the Development Kit 2 can allow those with the coding nous to create their own virtual reality experiences. But there are now many VR demos and full game patches allowing you to use DK 2 just for your personal entertainment.
What You Need: Hardware, and Oculus Rift Minimum Requirements
In terms of minimum system requirements, Oculus lists the following on its website:
A computer running a Windows 7 or Windows 8, Mac OS 10.8 or higher, or Ubuntu 12.04 LTS operating system, 2 USB ports (at least one powered), and a DVI-D or HDMI graphics output.
As for recommended, it states:
A desktop computer running a dedicated graphics card with DVI-D or HDMI graphics output, with capability of running current generation 3D games at 1080p resolution at 75fps or higher.
Hitting 75fps consistently is a must for Oculus Rift -- otherwise things go all screen-teary and juddery, and you’ll be puking onto your desktop before you can shout “Neo, save me!”.
Your graphics card is going to be the most important component for delivering an enjoyable Oculus Rift VR experience, and if you’re looking to upgrade, you shouldn’t look at anything less than Nvidia’s 4GB GTX 770 desktop GPU. You can pick these up for around £220, but as its an ageing component, you may be better off tracking down the newer, faster GTX 970, which hovers around the £280 mark.
It’s hard yet to discern exactly what system requirements future Oculus games will come with, but if they’re anything approaching Crysis 3 levels of graphical detail (which you have to assume is the plan), a GTX 970 will just about see you hit consistent high frame rates with the game’s bells and whistles dialled down. CPU and RAM at this stage are a little less important -- go for 16GB just for the sake of future proofing on the RAM front, while an Intel Core i5, like the 4690K Haswell model, should do the trick for the processor.
As ever though, you’ll want to push for as good a rig as your wallet will allow for: we’re using a PC Specialist Vanquish Pro-X, kitted out with an Intel Core i7-4790k 4GHz, 16GB of RAM and a meaty Nvidia GTX 980. There’s definitely an argument for holding off upgrading your PC until the consumer Rift’s specifications are released though -- PC hardware moves on incredibly quickly, and prices plummet to reflect that. What’s out of reach now may be perfectly affordable by the time the Rift’s consumer release comes around.
If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Mac user, you’re not shut out of the Oculus experience, but it’s going to be more difficult and, with everything Apple, more pricey. The most affordable Mac that will offer a reasonable Oculus experience is the 21.5-inch iMac, equipped with a 2.9GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and an Nvidia GeForce GT 750M GPU. It costs £1,199. In terms of laptops, the most affordable one that could do Oculus justice is the £1,999 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, with 16GB RAM, a 2.5Ghz Intel Core i7 processor and Nvidia GeForce GT 750M GPU. Though the RAM and processor in the MacBook are arguably overkill, any lower down the range and you have to settle for integrated Iris Pro graphics, which may struggle with the more intense VR experiences.
With your DK 2 unboxed and your souped-up PC ready to go, you’ll need to start plugging all the DK 2 gubbins in. I’m pretty sure you know a HDMI lead from a USB port, but in case you need some help, here’s Oculus’s DK 2 set-up guide.
What You Need: Software
With your hardware set-up, you now need to get Oculus’s software sorted. First off, you’ll need to get the Runtime package installed. Both Windows and OS X installers can be found here. On PC, installing is simply a matter of running the .exe file found in the package, and then rebooting your computer. It’s slightly more complex on the Mac, as OS X doesn’t support direct rendering. As a result, you’ll have to manually go into your System Preferences > Displays menu and adjust your settings to rotate the Rift’s display by 90 degrees. It’ll save you headaches if you uncheck the ‘Mirror Displays’ option too.
You’ll now have access to the Oculus System Tray in Windows (in OS X, the same controls are found in the /Applications/Oculus/Tools folder. The configuration tools in here will need to be tweaked based on the VR experience you’re looking to delve into, but it’s a good idea to set up a bespoke User Profile. Things like player height and gender can be set -- important for giving your in-game avatar a similar sense of “being” as your own, and helping you be immersed in the world. You can also manually turn an “Eye Relief” slider on the side of the DK 2 to adjust the lens distance within the headset -- you’ll need to match this with the equivalent software slider in the Configuration utility to get the most comfortable experience.
Things to Remember
As a development kit, not a consumer product, you need to be prepared for a lot of tinkering to get the Rift to do what you want it to. This isn’t (yet) a plug and play VR or VR gaming option -- you’ll need to dig around in settings menus, be unafraid of the term “mod” when it comes to PC gaming and be ready to trawl forums for the best set-ups for your virtual reality showcases. But once you do, you’re in for a treat -- Oculus Rift is unlike any virtual reality experience that’s gone before it, and though it now has competitors waiting in the wings, is even in this developer’s form the best way to experience VR at home. Have patience, join a VR community and dive in, proud in the knowledge that you’re a trailblazer in what’s certain to be the next stage of human/computer interaction.
The Best Oculus Rift Games and Demos
Whether you’re into the space-faring grandeur of Elite: Dangerous or the icy tundras of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, there are Oculus Rift workarounds for many top games. The third-party VorpX 3D driver software can take many existing DirectX 9, 10 and 11 games and render them in a way that Oculus Rift can understand. As existing titles haven’t been built with Oculus Rift in mind, results will vary -- things like HUD elements can be skewed, and animations can be a little wilder than you’d comfortable expect from “natural” VR movements. That said, Elite: Dangerous is one of the best VR experiences you can currently have, and has been developed with native DK 2 support.
Our pals over at Kotaku have put together an excellent list of their nine favourite VR games and demos so far (including software built specifically for the Rift). Check out their choices: it’s definitely a great place to start.