The Rift Report: exploring the solar system, interactive art, and virtual reality Zelda

Every Tuesday Andy straps on the Oculus Rift and dives headfirst into the world of virtual reality in the Rift Report . Is it really the future of PC gaming? Let's find out.

So the new HD Rift development kit has been revealed, and it'll cost you a princely $350 to buy. We don't have one yet (don't worry, we will), and the low-res screen of the first devkit is looking pretty pathetic compared to the dazzling high-res screen that Sam tried at GDC . But I'm still enjoying the original model, and a slightly blurry screen doesn't diminish the power of the Rift for me.

Going on a cosmic voyage in Solar System Explorer

In classic documentary series Cosmos, astronomer Carl Sagan journeys through space and time in a 'spaceship of the imagination', visiting distant worlds and galaxies in a craft unbound by the laws of physics. Solar System Explorer gives you the same power, but limited to our own cosmic neighbourhood. It lets you fly freely around the solar system, and the planets feel genuinely massive. The distances between them are to scale, giving you a palpable sense of how bloody big the Universe is. You can even sit inside the 3D cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. Yes, really.

It's a remarkable feeling to float on Saturn's rings, watching the huge world turn in the distance, or seeing Jupiter rise over the horizon of one of its moons. Descend to the surface of Mars and you'll see the terrain, including the colossal Olympus Mons volcano. Dip below the Earth's atmosphere and the sky shifts to blue above you. The scale is dizzying, and it can be quite a humbling experience. Thinking beyond games, this could be a powerful teaching tool. Let a kid fly to Neptune from Earth in the Rift and it'll fire their imaginations more than just telling them how far away it is.

Download Solar System Explorer

Interacting with art in Astralium

Artist Sander Bos describes Astralium as an “interactive virtual dreamworld” and an “abstract representation of a certain state of consciousness”, but the best description I could muster while traveling through its dazzling field of Unreal-powered particles was “Wooooah.” You use your head to steer through a web of shimmering points, floating towards a vast, glowing Mandala. As you move through the world, ambient music drifts through your headphones, and the way the particles slip past your field of view gives it a rich feeling of depth. It's like a screensaver for your brain.

Download the Astralium demo

The NES goes 3D in ZeldaVR

Developer Ubiquitron is remaking the original Legend of Zelda, first released on the NES in 1986, in 3D with Oculus Rift support. A beta version is available now containing the overworld and the first dungeon. Weirdly, despite the blocky visuals, it's a surprisingly convincing Rift experience, although it's the first VR game since Half-Life 2 to make me feel a bit sick. Nintendo are notoriously protective of their brands, so I'm not sure how long this will last before they bring down their Donkey Kong mallet of litigation, but it's worth grabbing while you can. The only way to play it is through , an actually pretty decent piece of software that's like Steam for the Rift, with a games library, tagging, and other neat features. I like being able to select something by just staring at it.

Download ZeldaVR

Community FAQ

Want to know something about Oculus Rift? Ask and Andy will answer. Tweet your questions to @pc_gamer with the hashtag #oculusfaq or leave them in the comments.

Will the Rift impress non-gamers or frighten them? In other words, if I get one, should I give my mum a go on it? – CalmDownTom

YouTube is full of videos of old ladies trying out the Rift, and they all seem impressed. In a future Rift Report I'm planning to test the headset out on a variety of people of different ages and gaming backgrounds, so look out for that. I might even strap it onto a dog.

What's the best way to control games while using the Rift? – Dylan Walsh

It all depends on the game. For Elite: Dangerous, a flight stick is absolutely the way to go. Similarly, a force feedback wheel adds a whole extra level of immersion to games like Euro Truck Simulator 2. Many games use the Xbox controller, and will even have a 3D one resting in your character's hands when you look down (Lunar Lander and Solar System Explorer are examples of this.) For first-person games, the mouse and keyboard work fine. It feels a bit unnatural at first to turn with both your head and the mouse, but you soon get used to it. The Razer Hydra (which is similar to a Wii remote) is good too, especially in games where you can see your hands like Surgeon Simulator 2013.

What's it like with normal games? Could I use it to play Dark Souls? – Craig Lager

Sadly not. The Rift only works with games built for it, or that have been retrofitted to work with it. You can use software like Perception to 'hack' VR support into existing games like Dishonored, Dear Esther, and Skyrim, but it never works as well as games with native support.

For more adventures in virtual reality, return next Tuesday for the next edition of The Rift Report.

Andy Kelly

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story.