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Experienced Points: Just How Good Is The Oculus Rift?

By Shamus
on Tuesday Sep 16, 2014
Filed under:


My column this week is a collection of observations and explanations, aimed at people who are still wondering what the fuss is about.

Here are a few more observations that are a little more technical:

I’m surprised at the state of the SDKSoftware Development Kit – An SDK is a collection of code aimed at a specific task. In this case, it’s used to talk to the Rift hardware.. It’s kind of rough in some places and really rough in others. Surprisingly, their OpenGL tools and documentation are primitive to non-existent.

See, there are two main ways to make polygons on today’s machines: DirectX (Microsoft) and OpenGL (open source, sort of). These two have been dueling since the 90’s. Using DX will marry you to Microsoft platforms and Microsoft tools, while OGL you’re a bit more free but also might have some other headaches to worry about.

I’ve spent several hours today just trying to build the most basic, elemental example of an Oculus project using OpenGL, and I have yet to make make anything happen on the Rift screen. There are examples in the wild, but they’re already obsolete because new features have been added, stuff has been re-named, and other things have been removed or consolidated. As far as I can tell, the API documentation doesn’t exist, so the only way to figure out what to do is to look at the example programs. And all of those are built for DX.

I suppose I could use the DirectX projects to play with, but I know OpenGL really well and almost nothing of DX, so the move would be painfully expensive in terms of time. It would be like learning Swedish just so you can assemble some IKEA furniture. I only have so much time in the week to put into this, and I’m not really keen on spending several days making myself literate in DX, just so I can spend time writing code that I’ll need to re-write once the OpenGL version of the toolset comes together.

Last week I complained about the number of cables on the Rift. It looks like they’ve been working on this problem for a while:

Link (YouTube)

You’ll want to skip most of that. At one minute they demo a completely wireless and self-contained VR kit. I’m actually really conflicted about this video. On one hand, I love seeing this technology work. On the other hand, their “unrehearsed” banter is so fake that it borders on creepy. It feels like aliens trying to fit in at a dinner party. “Ha ha. I love telling jokes with people and socializing, and this party is a wonderful opportunity to do so. I especially like how intelligent and attractive everyone is. I am out of things to say now, so someone else should take a turn talking.”

In any case, the technology looks fantastic. At about 4:30 Carmack himself comes out, and you can watch him convert jargon to marketing talk in his head in real time as he tries to explain to the clueless crowd just how amazing this thing is. I don’t mean to sound like I’m disdainful of the crowd. It’s just that one of the annoying things about VR is that it looks like it should be easyWhich is why it’s been “right around the corner” for almost a quarter century.. So you explain to people this amazing thing that that you have invented, overcoming numerous technological, engineering, and fabricating challenges, and most of them will be like, “Haven’t we been able to do this for years?”

What I’d really like to know is if this Gear VR thing can do positional tracking with its accelerometers. Positional tracking is massively important to avoid VR sickness. (Read the column for more on that.) In the demo, the woman was watching a panoramic video, which can’t support head movements. You can turn your head in place, but if you move your head around you obviously can’t see things from a perspective other than the one provided by the camera that made the original recording. Maybe they chose a panoramic video because they thought it would be the most interesting and relatable thing for the audience to see, but maybe they chose that so they wouldn’t have to talk about the lack of support for positional head tracking.

I’m reading docs and running demos. I think we’ll be talking about VR for the next couple of weeks.


[1] Software Development Kit – An SDK is a collection of code aimed at a specific task. In this case, it’s used to talk to the Rift hardware.

[2] Which is why it’s been “right around the corner” for almost a quarter century.

Comments (81)

  1. MichaelGC says:

    the API documentation doesn't exist

    At the very least this should help to minimise the number of people who will tell you to go & f***ing read it.

  2. Chuk says:

    Do we mention typos in the article here or over on Escapist? (“dedicated graphics graphics card”)

    I played with a friend’s Oculus Rift and it was super laggy on my decent-ish laptop, but find on the 2+ year old middle-of-the-road video card in our desktop PC. I only did a couple of the demos, but it was enough to get a sense of presence. I am very interested in seeing what things look like in a couple of years.

    • silver Harloe says:

      Maybe he means graphics graphics card. Like a really advanced computer would be able to render a card and its internal workings fast enough to use the rendered card as a graphics card?

  3. mhoff12358 says:

    I’ve heard of people implementing positional tracking with the Google cardboard, so I presume it could also be done with the gear if they both just piggyback on phones.

    • Alan says:

      Cell phones are relying on change of position information from the accelerometers. The problem is that you can only get relative position, not absolute position. Translating acceleration into turns is tricky and generates at least some error. Small amounts of error in measurement can add up, causing the game’s view of your position and your real position to diverge. Play for a while and you risk having to look 90 degrees to the right to see “forward.” This is probably more forgivable if you’re free to rotate in place, but if you’re juggling the cords for the Rift and your game pad it’s a deal-breaker.

      A compass/magnetometer can help, but is subject to the accuracy of the compass, including everything can that confuse a compass.

      The Rift’s solution (camera + IR lights) should be very robust and accurate, short of an earthquake.

      • Richard says:

        It’s even worse than that.

        Gyros give you “rate-of-change-of-orientation”.

        So to get the direction are you currently looking you have to integrate once – 3 deg/sec left for 1 sec, 5 deg/s right for 1 sec etc.

        If they were perfect, then you’d get a slowly building error due to the precision of your maths – 1.001 deg/s isn’t the same as 1.000 deg/s.

        And being real devices, they’re quite noisy anyway, giving you slightly wrong answers at random.

        You can fix this with a 3-axis magnetometer.
        This gives you an approximation of absolute magnetic field orientation data.
        So if the magnetic fields around the sensor don’t change, this is an approximate absolute orientation which you can use to correct your gyro orientation result

        Accelerometers give you “rate-of-change-of-rate-of-change-of-position”.

        So to get position data out of them, you have to integrate (to get velocity) and then integrate that result again.

        So you get a double whammy of maths errors, and again they’re at least as noisy as gyros. (Physically they are almost identical)

        If you put the sensor down on your desk and wait, it doesn’t take long before the software is convinced it’s left the room – perhaps via the floor, or the ceiling or whatever.

        The only way to get absolute position data is to compare your position with something that either hasn’t moved or moves in a known way.
        – Your phone uses cell towers and GPS satellites, neither of which can give you 1m precision, and VR needs something at least 100 times better.

        Hence the camera on the monitor, which uses image tracking to correct the error in the positional integration.

      • Niriel says:

        Actually, the accumulation of small errors does not have to be a problem as long as the brain does not notice it. I wish I could find back the video on Youtube… It showed someone wearing a VR headset. They thought they were walking on a straight line, when in reality the trajectory they were following was slightly curved. This was done on purpose, as an experiment to test the hypothesis that small spaces could give the illusion of being bigger than they were. Holodeck anyone? I am not sure anymore, but it relied on absolute tracking. My point is: VR and RL may differ a bit without us noticing.

        Your point remains perfectly valid. We cannot integrate errors forever, we need an absolute reference from time to time.

      • Peter H. Coffin says:

        Well, there’s is one thing that can help A LOT and (as long as you don’t get too many people freaking out about the app asking for permission) that’s the back camera, which can supplement the accelerometers by providing a reference to absolute positioning to compare with accelerometer data, which A) refines alignment a lot and b) pins accelerometer drift. The 3DS Augmented Reality games used this trick to good effect in some alien zapper demo that came out early on.

  4. silver Harloe says:

    “All we need is one idiot to get in an accident after using VR and we’ll have a circus of hyperbolic news about the DANGERS OF THE NEW THING”

    I’ve been waiting for a new thing to take the mantle away from computer games for explaining society’s ills, anyway (the mantle that was passed from rock and roll to TV to D&D to computer games).

  5. RTBones says:

    Believe it or not, the sickness you feel is not limited to VR – it is a very real phenomenon. In the world of flight simulation, you’ll see it the most in fixed-based simulators inside of domes. Essentially, the simulator is in the center of the dome and doesn’t move, but the “world” around you does. Sooner or later, you’ll find yourself physically leaning into turns as you would if you were really flying. Do this long enough and your inner ear can occasionally play tricks on you – particularly once ‘the music stops’. In some places, there are even rules governing the length of time you are required to wait after a simulator before you fly a real airplane.

    • Mephane says:

      Essentially, the simulator is in the center of the dome and doesn't move, but the “world” around you does. Sooner or later, you'll find yourself physically leaning into turns as you would if you were really flying.

      This is so true, I’ve also experienced subconsciously doing this in racing games.

  6. steves says:

    Interesting article (ignore silly headline) on how men & women perceive things differently re. motion vs. shapes, and how it contributes to the VR sickness thing:


    • ET says:

      Obviously the solution is to jack up both males and females with huge amounts of hormones of each sex. Hormone treatment for everyone! No more problems with motion sickness or spatial-reasoning problems! (Never mind all the extra hair and rage/mood swings. You’re imagining that…)

  7. Spammy says:

    With all the talk of head positioning, here’s a question that just came to mind: How well do the current Rift demos and software do with you shifting around in your chair? When I’m playing a game I’m leaning back and forth, leaning on and off my desk, adjusting how I hold my mouse, crossing my legs, squirming around… all things that are moving my head just a bit.

    Do any of the current demos do well with that kind of movement, or do they all require you to sit as still as possible and keep your head still?

    • Shamus says:

      In DK1 (or demos made for DK1) this sort of thing does make you a little queasy.

      With DK2, you don’t need to hold still, and in fact all the moving around seems to make everything more… real? Like, there’s a demo that comes with the rift that’s just you sitting in a chair (bodyless) at a simple desk with a few items on it: Same cards, lamp, paper, pencil. You lean back in real life and you also lean back in the demo. Totally seamless. So it really does feel like you’re there, to the point where it feels odd to look down and not see my hands. You don’t “notice” all the head shifting and bobbing in the game for the same reason you don’t notice it in real life.

      • Can you “misalign” the Rift? If you shake your head really fast or try to move REALLLLLLY slow, does your POV in-game start to separate from where it should be?

        • Shamus says:

          Complicated question. The answers are:

          * NO: The camera views you in fixed space and as long as you’re in its view cone and not obstructed, it should properly orient you relative to the camera.
          * YES: The docs warn that over time the matrices that track head position and orientation will drift a bit if you just take values as deltas. Once in a while you should re-align.
          * NO: If you waggle your head back and forth really fast you’ll puke before your flailing harms the system anyway. The fast you move your head, the nastier the pixel-changes are. Even 75FPS feels “sluggish” on my machine. Abrash has suggested we should be aiming for something like 120fps (!!!!) to truly fix this.

          • Bropocalypse says:

            120 FPS?! We have to go deeper?!

            This makes me start to think that maybe even if all the technical problems get worked out in the short-term, the Rift probably won’t find a sizable market share for a long time. I mean, let’s assume for simplicity’s sake that the gaming market can be divided into two broad categories: Hardcore and casual.
            Even if you got the biggest, beefiest video card out there, then got ANOTHER one, and made them run parallel, you might JUST meet the requirements to do a modern-looking game at 120 FPS. Even as awesome as it would be to have a setup like that, the vast majority of your self-identifying ‘hardcore’ gamers are not going to even consider owning a rig like that. A casual gamer would be even LESS likely to have one. Why would they?
            This is a problem, since because the development of games compatible for the rift would be restricted by the time and money costs of the extra work to get it to look and feel right. The library of Rift-compatible games will be restricted as a result. Barring huge entities with seemingly limitless funds like EA or Actiblizzard or Valve, the choice to develop for the Rift will not be one to make lightly, especially since the Rift itself is also not free.
            These restrictions mean that ownership of a Rift will be most likely restricted to those who A) only play a dozen or fewer titles per year and B) have several thousands of dollars to burn on a hobby they loosely follow.

            I can see the Rift working out as something that is commonly owned, but not with current hardware. To get the framerate and performance needed to make it a truly GOOD experience will probably take a few years. Maybe even a decade to get things to the price range that your average consumer will be willing to shell out for what is basically an alternate way to experience the same game. In the long term, it might be possible for this to become a mainstay, but it’s gonna take a long time for the market to accept it.

            • Only playing a few titles a year is not “loosely following” the hobby. It may just mean that you play an MMO or similar mega-time-sink style of game. My housemate and I are both hardcore gamers and the ONLY game we’ve bought in the past year is Diablo III: Reaper of Souls. I play DDO predominately and he plays that AND WoW AND SW:TOR. We both play roughly 35 hours a week, if not more, enough for our gaming to qualify as a full-time job.

              So, with that in mind, maybe the main criterion to look for is “will people play this game for hundreds, if not thousands of hours”. If it’s a single player game with 20 hours of content, Rift is probably a waste of resources at this point because the audiences won’t overlap.

              Of course, then you have the other problem–my housemate and I are completely uninterested in the Rift. Oh, it’s a neat IDEA, don’t get me wrong, but I talked to him about it and we agreed that we both have ZERO interest in a nausea-inducing VR headset. We LIKE to game looking at a screen. Neither of us really enjoys 3D anything. And I’m one of the few people who has actually EXPERIENCED 3D gaming, because my dad did his dissertation on VR in 1996 and I was one of the test subjects. I did a report on it for school.

              • The reports of how awesome (or perhaps “novel” is a better word) movies look in the Rift might be a secondary selling point. I don’t know anyone who bought a 3D TV, which required goggles, but a VR setup that maybe handled 3D for television and VR for gaming? That might be a winner, if the hardware is user-friendly and ergonomic enough, I think.

                • Volfram says:

                  I get the mental image of a VR theater with a movie screen in the front of it, which would certainly be a novel way to watch movies.

                  Bonus points if for 3D movies, you set it up so that each eye gets the appropriate eye-view from the movie.

            • ET says:

              It’d be possible to get the 120 FPS mark, if you make your game with simpler geometry, and lower res textures. Cel-shading might become popular again, just because it’d be one of the first aesthetic styles, which is compatible with the demanding requirements of VR headsets. Borderlands III will be VR? Re-re-release Wind Waker? :P

            • As to the hardware problems: Wait a few years, problem solved. I expect Moore’s Law to fizzle someday, but today is not that day.

              • Richard says:

                And everybody already knows how to deal with massively-parallel GPUs, so “just add more cores” is a perfectly good way to use all those extra transistors.

                Not true of CPUs of course.

          • I’m starting to think there’s money to be had in novelty Oculus Rift Barf Bags. :)

  8. Zak McKracken says:

    What I’d like to know is whether that video was just regular panoramic or stereo. Stereographic panoramic video would be sweeet, but I’ve no idea how you would film that sort of thing. Non-stereo video on a VR headset? Oh, I don’t know. How immersive is that?

  9. Paul Spooner says:

    It is very possible to do positional tracking with accelerometers. The drawback is that, while it works fine in the short term, the innaccuracies start accumulating through a process called integration error. Basically, it’s the problem with walking around the block with your eyes closed. You won’t end up back where you started, because it’s impossible to make all the incremental measurements that accurately.

    The US navy needed a way for nuclear submarines to navigate underwater without using any active external sensors. Sonar is out, light and radio doesn’t penetrate water well at all, so all you’re left with is inertial. To get an inertial system accurate enough for dead reckoning to not be totally worthless in a few months, they needed accelerometers the size of washing machines. And the errors still accumulate over time, so eventually you have to surface, not to renew resources, but just to figure out where the heck you are.

    In this case, “surfacing” is re-syncing with the external motion tracking camera. So, I suspect, they will be doing (or are already doing) short latency head tracking for position and rotation with the accelerometers, and long latency integration zeroing with the camera. As long as you don’t sit with your back to the camera for too long, this should work fine, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they add a secondary tracking led cluster to the back-strap buckle to help solve this problem.

  10. Steve C says:

    In that video demo I believe they are faking it. They never explicitly state it’s the same video feed. They do the weaseling dance with words and implications. The woman turns her head the video feed above moves. Then later she turns almost completely around and jerks her head a few times with no change in scenery. I have no idea what she is looking at but I don’t think the audience is seeing the same thing she is.

    It makes sense they would fake it too. Think about a video camera stuck to someone’s head. It’s jerky and off putting in most cases to an audience while perfectly normal to the guy wearing it.

    • Retsam says:

      Yeah, it wouldn’t surprise me. That’s just how those presentations go, generally. I almost laughed out loud at her “I’ve never put one of these on before” line. Yeah, I’m sure they went right into this massive demo in front of thousands of people without any rehearsal before hand.

      • Shamus says:

        Yes! That line was SO ridiculous. I could handle the forced banter, but that line bordered on the deceptive. Well, it WAS deceptive, and the only defense you can give for it is, “Bah, we all know this is fake so it’s not really lying.” So their defense for being full of crap is that we KNOW they’re full of crap? It’s just… slimy and insincere.

        It would be great if it were actually true, though. Like, they bring out this complete new, she puts on a headset for the first time, turns around a couple of times, and then pukes right there on stage.

  11. Nidokoenig says:

    Maybe I’m missing something but the sickness you describe fits my experience of motion sickness. Dizziness, nausea and having to go and lie down for a couple of hours were what I had to deal with before I got a new pair of glasses that had a new prescription and weren’t FUBAR. Makes me wonder if the Rift might benefit from having lenses fitted, though I imagine when it’s right up in your face there’s very little margin for error, so people who don’t need glasses for everyday life might find they need personal lenses for the Rift. Also makes me wonder how nobody in the Matrix movies and similar realised they were in VR when they should have been screaming for Huey and Ralph all the time.

    With regards to positional tracking, isn’t it a safe assumption that the Rift is running off a PC in the same room, and that that PC can be considered stationary unless you have bigger problems than your VR not working? Plug a Wii-style sensor bar into that and get a fixed point to triangulate from using a couple of receivers on the Rift. Put it on a big control panel-style controller and you can display the panel in-game and use more advanced controls.

    • ET says:

      In my experience, most people only get the more temporary kind of motion sickness. Only like, one in ten have the long-term kind you and Shamus-in-VR suffer from. I’m sure it exists on a continuum, and there’s probably research data showing the number of people with various magnitudes of severity and duration.

    • They didn’t realize they were in VR because it was a different kind of VR. In The Matrix it obviously isn’t a case of strapping things to the outside of you and trying to feed mimicked sensory impressions. Rather, it’s a case of sending impulses to where your nervous system would normally be sending them, feeding appropriate inputs directly to your brain. That would include feeds of “inner ear motion sensor” neural data and even kinesthetic sense data. So like if you “crouch”, not only would you feel like your head had moved, you would even feel like your body was positioned differently even though the real body sitting in a tank thing hadn’t moved at all. The only way you’d be able to figure out Matrix-type VR would be through glitches or inconsistencies in the presentation of the fake reality.

      (Well, if you “exercised” a lot there might be subtle effects from differences between the hormonal and chemical output of your actually-inactive body and what ought to be coming from your exercising body; you might feel crappier and more sluggish than you would in the real world. But it’s hard to go from “I don’t know why I feel a vague malaise” to “I’m living in a virtual reality!”

  12. kanodin says:

    So I was never a fan of the kinect, but now I’m curious how it would do as a control scheme for the rift. It seems like being able to naturally reach out and grab the stuff in the desk demo for example would be a lot more natural than pushing buttons. I know someone is working on haptic gloves but those seem even farther off than the rift.

    • ET says:

      You mean gloves with little vibration/heat/cold feedback gadgets built in? Sign me up! :D

      Actually, this seems like it should be reasonably easy to do, if you limit the feedback to the palm of the hand, and maybe the index finger and thumb. Stick a Peltier cell in the palm for hot/cold, and a dual-axis vibrator* in the palm, index finger, and thumb for touch feedback.

      * Like Valve has in their magic omni-touch-pads for their prototype controller.

    • Ithilanor says:

      I’d be surprised if someone wasn’t working on that; if I remember correctly, Campster mentioned the big buzz at GDC this past year was using the Rift for better UIs.

  13. Hamilcar says:

    You said that they have Half-Life 2 for the Rift, right? What is that like? You say most of the stuff for the Rift is just demonstration type stuff, like sitting at a desk. But Half-Life 2 is a high-end FPS with awesome graphics, running and gunning and a gimik gun. How does that work out for the Rift?

    • Matt Downie says:

      Not so good – things like running and climbing ladders cause severe simulator sickness.

    • lethal_guitar says:

      Personally, I absolutely loved the beginning of the game (which is, coincidentally, also more of a “walking simulator”). Let’s say up to the point where you get your first gun.

      Experiencing these environments in such an immersive way is awesome, and you appreciate all the little details on a whole new level. For example,
      there’s a wall with a keypad at one point. The buttons of that are fully modeled geometry, not just a texture. Which you don’t even really notice outside of VR, but with the rift, I couldn’t stop gazing at that beautiful thing. Exploring Dr. Kleiner’s lab is also great.

      What also worked really well for me was the rooftop chase sequence. Without VR, it’s just “yeah I’m running along a small ledge up very high, whatever”. But with the rift, you start to really “feel” how far up you are, so it’s more like
      “Holy mother of ****, I’m high up on a really narrow rooftop and people are shooting at me and aaaah”.
      That whole experience was really intense for me.

      Bottom line: I’d say it’s worth a try for the experience. Still, I wouldn’t want to play the whole game that way. Oh and yes, it can be really sickness-inducing.

  14. Dude says:

    Shamus, have you tried watching a movie, or any static media (except Spoiler Warning with Josh’s bunnyhopping, of course) on the Rift?

    How does that feel? I think VR/mounted displays etc will find a pretty big use for people who prefer private media consumption if they can make it work well without any ergonomics hassles.

    • lethal_guitar says:

      It’s pretty much like watching a 3D movie in a theater. The effect might be a little stronger, but personally, I didn’t find it that extraordinary or anything.

      Basically, you lose everything that makes the Rift so special as soon as the interactivity goes away.

  15. Decius says:

    The size of the optics can be reduced with science; I don’t think a Fresnel lens could be made precisely enough, but the distances can be shortened by finding materials with a better index of refraction and other optical properties.

    I feel like the best answer is some kind of projection system, anyway; put the part of the device that makes the image on the temples rather than in front of the face. That seems like it’s about five generations out, though.

  16. Ingo says:

    “Ha ha. I love telling jokes with people and socializing, and this party is a wonderful opportunity to do so. I especially like how intelligent and attractive everyone is. I am out of things to say now, so someone else should take a turn talking.”

    Did anyone else read that in a pseudo-Tommy Wiseau voice?

  17. lethal_guitar says:

    I think we'll be talking about VR for the next couple of weeks.

    Let me give you a +1, a “yes please”, a “Thumbs up” and a “like” for this! Plus any other form of internet-based approval display I might have missed.

    Oh, and really great article btw! You talk about a lot of things I’ve never thought about before, like the “warning labels” stuff.

  18. Man, I miss listening to John Carmack talk about technology. It was the only thing worth anything at quakecon. I dunno what the shit they’re going to do now. I kind of want him to do a 2 hour technology speech on youtube or something.

    The ghosting and blurring of the oculus is really its only weakness I think, that and the low resolutions. If they can get rid of that, I need to get one.

  19. Geebs says:

    So, I’m curious about the number of eyes Oculus think the human race will evolve to have in the future: is ovrEye_Count an int or a long?

  20. mom says:

    While I was reading exp pts on the Escapist, I wondered if dramamine lessens the “motion sickness” effect.

  21. D-Frame says:

    Thumbs up for Dinner Party Alien!

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