This month at GDC Oculus finally revealed their next mainstream PC VR headset. The Rift S will entirely replace the original consumer Rift (CV1) which is already out of stock in mainland USA. The response from the Oculus fan community has been a rather resounding “wtf?” So let’s have a look at how the new Rift compares to the original and then talk a bit about what’s going on.
Examining the Differences Between the CV1 and the S
The resolution has been bumped up from 1080×1200 per eye to 1280×1440, but now refreshes at 80hz rather than 90. The new screen is also of the LCD rather than OLED variety and this is a mixed blessing. Much of the infamous screen-door effect was caused by the OLED pentile pixel arrangement. Pentile is basically instead of having one Red, one Green and one Blue “subpixel” for each pixel, pentile pixels have one Green subpixel, and either one Red or one Blue subpixel in a repeating pattern. On the downside, LCD panels produce a smaller range of colours (lower contrast ratio) and must be backlit so blacks are not as dark as with OLED.
The head strap is now a “halo” style arrangement much like the PSVR and some Windows Mixed Reality devices. The over-ear headphones are now absent, replaced with an in-strap solution, although there is a hidden 3.5mm jack for anyone wanting a more isolated soundscape. These changes make the device more simple and comfortable to equip. The downside here is obviously going to be quality of sound, especially in the bottom end.
Tracking is the biggest major change with the Rift S. The original Rift was never intended for Room-scale tracking as anyone who has set one up for room-scale well knows. Getting similar tracking to the Vive is possible, but you have to purchase a 3rd sensor, then mount all 3 sensors up on the wall with whatever you could find at the hardware store because Oculus never supplied any kind of wall mounts. Then you had to calibrate, and recalibrate any time one of the sensors got bumped or moved, which was all too common considering all 3 sensors had bulky USB 3 cables snaking back to the PC. All this messing has been eliminated with the Rift S which comes equipped with 5 camera sensors inside the headset. These cameras are used to track the new touch controllers as well as tracking your movement inside your playspace. All you have to do to set up a Rift S is plug in a single Display Port and you’re good to go. While it’s true that this new camera system is slightly less accurate, it’s definitely good enough.
Is the new Oculus Rift S an Upgrade?
So overall not much of an upgrade at all. In fact, some argue it’s a downgrade in many respects. But here’s the thing, I think Oculus did exactly what they should have done here. First, let’s look at the market in general. Since 2016 there have been, very roughly, about a million PC VR devises sold. That’s way lower than even the lowest estimates. That’s lower than what some estimated by the end of 2016 and yet here we are 3 years later and after both major players basically halved the price of their flagship products. A common sentiment among hardcore Oculus fans is that the company has abandoned them but the reality is that PC gamers have abandoned VR. The numbers are growing, but nowhere near enough.
In my view what Oculus has done here, is exactly what they should have done. What PC VR needs right now is not big resolution gains or beefy new specs, not a wider field of view or some amazing new features. No. What PC VR needs right now is Users. The most glaring shortfall of PC VR is simply content. There are so few good games, and still not a single big hitting AAA game. Sure there are a few games that have the quality feel of a AAA game, but nothing that can draw and sustain a long term player base. Gaming is dominated by juggernaut titles and the draw of these games is too great for the average gamers to want to invest $500 on a device that can’t even be used to play them.
The other major concerns for non-VR adopters are Compatibility, Complexity, and Comfort. This explains most of the other design choices. When the CV1 first hit the shelves there was an outcry about the high minimum requirements, the last thing they were going to do was make that mistake again. The simplification of the new built-in tracking system is perhaps the smartest move. Average gamers won’t care that the new system is slightly less accurate, they just need to know it works, and it does. Not having to set up sensors around the room or worry about USB ports and USB controller distribution is another hurdle out of the way. So many times have I had my PC Gamer friends almost convinced of VR only for them to sigh when I start explaining how ‘easy’ it was to mount my sensors on the wall. The new simple head strap, reduced screen door effect, and removed headphones were all design choices to address comfort.
Now there is a small elephant in the room regarding the simplification argument in the form of Windows MR. But I think there were a few problems with the whole MR thing. First of all, there are so many different versions from different companies and that it caused a paradox of choice. The MR distinction was further confusing, people weren’t sure where these devices fit between real VR and the plastic junk you see in the dollar store that holds your smartphone. This confusion lead to many consumers not even being aware that you could connect these devices to the Steam library of VR games. The whole thing was just a bit of a misfire.
More recently other companies have already shown the folly of increased spec headsets. The Vive pro is fantastic… but as of the last steam user poll it accounted for 1.82% of VR users, who in turn make up less than 0.9% of Steam users. The super resolution Pimax headsets similarly, and by the companies own admission, have only moved around 5000 units so far. There are also a few bumped up Windows MR devices on the way. Even if Oculus wanted to make a market leading headset, they would be entering into a tiny yet somehow already crowded market. Not a smart business decision.
So the Rift S is certainly not for high-end users who want the latest and greatest. In fact, if you have a perfectly working Rift CV1 then I wouldn’t recommend it either. But what the S could do is something we should all get behind. It’s the best chance we have of growing the PC VR market into something investors feel confident about. And it might also be the last chance, certainly, the high-end devices aren’t doing the job. So tell your friends, your neighbours and your co-workers about the Rift S and how simple it is. Tell them how it only requires what is now an entry level PC. Once we get this content ball rolling, the awesome half-dome eye-tracking mega headsets will follow in a natural progression. Everyone wins.