Remember when Oculus helped begin the whole VR scene with its Oculus Rift headset? Announced in 2012, it really did make VR seem real.
But now the Rift has been retired and on offer is the entry-level Oculus Go which is self-contained and pitched as a VR video player.
Also (and crucially) self-contained is the user-friendly and convenient Oculus Quest. This has been upgraded to have sophisticated hand controllers, full-motion tracking and is pitched as a mass-market console for gaming – though it does lack experimental features and offers limited computing power.
And then there’s the replacement for the original – the Rift-S. Described as the ‘gold-standard’ for VR gaming, it still has to be connected to a gaming PC and this is the option needed for the exclusive high-end Oculus games.
The Rift-S now has the “Insight” system, first seen on the Quest, which uses tracking cameras built straight into the headset. It has five cameras to the Quest’s four, with two on the front, one on each side, and one on the top of the headset.
Even though you’re attached to a computer, the S is still an improvement over the original Rift with the complicated inconvenience of its wired camera stands. The new Rift’s self-contained setup is far simpler. You plug in one USB cable and one Port cable, then run the Oculus desktop software. To put boundaries around your play space, with headset on and controller in hand, you trace lines on a video feed of the real world – just like the Quest. No camera stands or running wires.
In addition, Oculus has slightly redesigned its old touch controllers, but they seem to be neither better nor worse than the original, and the old over-the-ear headphones are gone – replaced by directional speakers designed to direct sound into your ears.
The Rift-S has a slightly higher-resolution screen than the original Rift, at 1280 x 1440 pixels per eye. However, this is still lower than the Oculus Quest and in fact the screen refresh rate has actually been downgraded. Most VR headsets (including the old Rift) have aimed at a minimum of 90Hz while the Rift S refreshes at a lower rate of 80Hz.
The rationale behind this is that if your gaming PC met the old minimum Rift specs, it should also work with the Rift-S. So, it’s great if you’re using an older computer but potentially frustrating if you can’t take advantage of the power of a more modern one. It may seem surprising then that Oculus didn’t increase the recommended specifications or drop support for its minimum specs if the Rift S is aimed at people who don’t mind buying a new graphics card or a more powerful computer.
However, though VR is growing, PC-based headsets are still a niche product, and even a brilliant Rift upgrade may only have a small consumer audience. What the Rift-S does gives developers is the Quest’s basic set of features without its hardware limitations.
Overall, it seems that Oculus has delivered one major improvement and several (debatably) helpful trade-offs. And for the time being at least, that’s the price you pay to play the biggest blockbuster games.