Oculus Rift VR headset prototype works so well it’s a little scary

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LAS VEGAS — After testing a prototype version of the Oculus Rift virtual reality device we came away impressed, intrigued and a little disoriented.

It feels like a long time since we’ve seen a decent virtual reality rig at CES. This is my third year covering the show, and before today I’d never seen anything that made me pine for the virtual worlds I dreamed of as a nerdy kid reading “Neuromancer.” That changed after I seized an opportunity to test out a prototype version of the developer kit for the Oculus Rift and finally had the VR experience I’ve been fantasizing about for years.

If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Oculus Rift was a popular Kickstarter project that successfully hit its crowd-funding goals in August. The Oculus VR team brought a prototype version of the developer kit to CES, and as much as I want to dislike the notion of VR games (remember Virtual Boy?) this headset does an amazing job of making you feel immersed in a virtual world.

As great as our experience was, there’s no guarantee the finished product that hits store shelves will have the same hardware, work the same way or even look like what we’re seeing at CES. Trying to talk about hard details like price, release date, or even hardware specs is tricky when you’re chatting up the Oculus VR team because the headset is still being tweaked and improved; you get the impression that if they had their way, the Oculus Rift would never stop evolving.

Still, the product has to be sold at some point, and this March the Oculus Rift developer kits are expected to start shipping out to software developers and anyone who contributed $300 or more to the Kickstarter fund last year. While some select developers have already begun working closely with Oculus VR to try to figure out viable ways to incorporate a VR headset into 3D games without triggering a gag reflex in motion-sensitive players, it will probably take some time for most game developers to get a handle on the headset’s capabilities.

After spending a half-hour testing the prototype, it seems awfully capable. I’ve played around with my share of goofy VR rigs for work and play, but this is the first headset I’ve tested that doesn’t trigger any motion sickness or disorientation after 15 minutes of play. That’s all the more interesting when you consider the Oculus Rift was designed with off-the-shelf parts using technology that’s very similar to what makes your smartphone capable of tracking movement and orientation.

There’s a sensor package strapped to the front of the Oculus Rift headset that includes a gyrometer, accelerometer and magnetometer, and just like your phone the headset uses those sensors to measure how your head is moving in three dimensions. That data is piped back into the control board and used to process how your character is moving in 3D space, which is then rendered on a 7-inch 720p LCD display that you watch through two lenses (one over each eye) that work in tandem to create a stereoscopic 3D image in real time with almost no noticeable latency.

If that sounds like a lot of work, it is; the fact that Oculus VR has managed to build a prototype version for roughly $300 is remarkable. It’s the first decent VR headset I’ve ever used, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the final version; I just hope PC game developers invest the time and resources required to adapt modern PC games for such a unique peripheral.

For more blogs, stories, photos, and video from the nation's largest consumer electronics show, check out complete coverage of CES 2013 from PCWorld and TechHive.

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