Hands and eyes-on with the high-def Oculus Rift prototype

The Oculus Rift is a lightweight, boxy, head-mounted display that covers your eyes and blows your mind. Once properly adjusted so that its interior screens are aligned with each of your eyes (stabilized by a single elastic strap that runs behind your head), the image snaps into focus and you're plunged into a virtual environment, free to look around in any direction independent of your mouse movements. You can keep firing at anything ahead of you in your path while, say, you look behind yourself over your shoulder for enemies creeping up behind you, or quickly glance upward to admire the nice ornamental work on the ceiling.

The Rift is the latest in a long line of virtual-reality gadgets dating back to the 1990s that have promised to deliver deeper immersion in our games, but most of them began as fledgling curiosities hawked around the outer perimeter of the E3 show floor and ended up gathering dust in warehouses and junk drawers. The Oculus Rift, on the other hand, is picking up endorsements from PC gaming royalty, including John Carmack, Gabe Newell, and Chris Roberts. The peripheral is dazzling gamers with prototypes demoed at PAX East and GDC, as well as throughout the week here in Los Angeles at E3.

But today's demonstration—my third hands-on experience with the set—was the most exhilarating of them all thanks to a prototype unit that boosts the resolution from 1280x800 (in the model available to developers and Oculus VR's Kickstarter backers) to 1920x1200, which is the resolution Oculus VR CEO Brandan Iribe told me is intended for the consumer version. "If not better," he hinted with a smile as he tucked my head into the Rift. I began scooting around the vaulted carvern of the Unreal Engine "Elemental" demo, firing luminous missiles and tracking them with my eyes as they ricocheted off the floor and walls. At one point I watched one carom off a rock towards my feet, and Iribe had to grab me before I inadvertently slammed my head against the glass table I'd forgotten was in front of me.

Obviously a shard of bloody glass sticking conspicuously out of my forehead is not the kind of press Oculus is looking for, but that gives you a sense of how mesmerizing the Rift can be. And the key to its immersion—the word can't be avoided—is the lack of any sense of lag between the movement of my head and the display. That's also why the Rift is such a pleasure despite the relatively low resolution per display. That said, I can imagine that it's possible that after some use, the somewhat grotty-looking textures that were evident in my demo might frustrate PC gamers in particular. Until the resolution is raised even higher, some judicious use of filters and stylized graphics might be necessary for the first generation of games developed for the Rift.

In addition to the Elemental demo (as well as a touching snowfall tribute to the late Oculus co-founder Andrew Scott Reisse), Iribe demonstrated a new app developed for the Rift that drops you into a customizable virtual theater. It's got plenty of seats, a huge screen, even a projector flickering in the back—everything but the jerk using his phone in the middle of the movie. I watched the Man of Steel trailer as Iribe described the ways in which—let's call it Oculus Happy Cinema—might be used: you can sit anywhere you like, watch anything you've got, and even watch the movie with friends who also have Rifts (who could, Iribe added, also be individually muted). It might seem odd at first to use an app that creates a virtual theater instead of simply watching movies in full-screen mode, but if you think about it, that'd be like watching an IMAX movie a few feet away from the screen.

The Man of Steel trailer, and Russel Crowe's furrowed brows in particular, reminded me that in order to work properly the Rift must maintain its position perfectly; a sudden jerk of the head can cause the image to blur until the headset is readjusted. And while the Rift can track your head orientation in any direction, it can't yet sense horizontal or lateral movements, such as raising your head with your spine straight to peek over cover. There may not be much that can be done about the former—at least, not until 400,000 years or so until our eyes evolve to view focal points independently—but Iribe tells me that a solution for the latter is something Oculus is working on.

But horizontal tracking and higher resolutions are essentially refinements to a breakthrough in virtual reality technology that found a way to solve the lag problem, which for gamers means solving the vomit problem. And Oculus VR, as well as the developers who are experimenting with and developing bespoke games for the Rift, have at least another year to refine the hardware and software (no shipping date has been announced for the consumer version, though odds are good on 2014). They're both off to a fantastic start, and PC Gamer will be tapping into those experiments along the way.

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