My Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2 arrived on Friday. I set it up and tried it for the first time the next day. Here are my first impressions.

Before starting, I paused to consider what I wanted my first experience to be. I fully expected this would be a momentous occasion and I wanted to start off with something memorable. However, pragmatism won out and I decided to try the demo provided in the Oculus configuration tool.

Simple as the experience was, I wasn’t the least bit disappointed. I probably should have taken more time to adjust and calibrate the headset, but I was too eager to dive in. Thankfully, my haste didn’t diminish the experience. The demo presented a virtual space consisting of a floating options menu, a table with a variety of common objects placed on it, and a chair where the viewer is seated.

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The first thing I noticed was the head tracking. I was stunned by how well the device followed my movements. New and innovative technology often invites exaggeration and hyperbole. The Oculus Rift is no exception; you don’t have to look far to find videos of people oohing and aahing at their first Oculus VR experience. This was a rare moment when reality matched the hype. It was so effective that, once I was within the experience, I stopped thinking about head-tracking altogether. I didn’t think about the position and movement of my head any more than you might if you were looking through a real, open window. It’s that good.

If you’ve watched any demos, you may have noticed a lot of jittery shaking in the display as the person looks around. The effect can be unsettling. However, none of that is apparent while wearing the device. No matter how much your head might be bobbing or shaking, the images you see are rock-steady. That lends everything a surprising sense of realism and permanence, even when the rendered image is relatively simple or low-res.

I paused to look around my environment. When I looked down, I was surprised to see an empty chair. I had no virtual body! In a typical game, I wouldn’t have given this a second thought. Here, given how immersive the rest of the experience was, it was odd and just a little unsettling. It was a bit like being a ghost, and hinted at some of the subtle, unexpected ways this technology will influence game design.

I also found myself wanting to reach out and touch the virtual objects in front of me. I knew I couldn’t, but I tried anyway, cracking my knuckles on my very real table and nearly knocking over my drink in the process. I hadn’t anticipated this sensation. I figured I’d be content to interact with the environment using my mouse or keyboard, but the urge to reach out and pick things up was overwhelming. Nearly everyone in my family who later tried the Oculus experienced the same thing.

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When I saw a video of someone holding two PlayStation Move controllers while using their Morpheus headset, I thought it looked a little silly. Now I get it. Being able to manipulate objects in the virtual environment is vital to the overall experience. This is where Microsoft’s Hololens has a distinct advantage with their well-established Kinect technology.

Since that first experience, I’ve tried a number of demos. Most have been really fun. More than a few nauseated me, not because of the head tracking or optics, but because VR changes the rules of interactivity. To be more specific, it seems to amplify and extend the detrimental physiological effects of bad control schemes. I was surprised to find that the first experience that made me sick wasn’t an action game, but an architectural visualization demo in which you floated about the room using an awkward combination of mouse-steering and head movement. The worst was a flight simulator that allowed you to steer simply by moving your head. Bad idea, at least for me.

When first I placed my order for my Oculus dev kit, I wondered if I had made a mistake. So many technologies come and go without living up to their promise. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the Oculus Rift proved uninspiring. While the virtual experience isn’t what I imagined, I still feel it’s full of promise and potential. This is a device that is likely as any to change not just how we entertain ourselves, but how we work, learn, and connect to one another.

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It isn’t all roses and sunshine. The current experience is limited. While the device offers a surprising amount of spatial freedom, the portal through which you view the virtual world is boxed-in and cumbersome. If people still complain about one extra pound in their laptop, they’re not going to be happy when that pound is strapped to their face. The images are slightly grainy and maybe just a little discolored. Interacting with the environment in a fluid, natural way is a big challenge. Having surmounted the problem of tracking head-movement, VR developers have a long road to travel as they rethink other aspects of interactivity.

Every one of these problems seems surmountable. None of them hid the fact that, while the present window onto the virtual world is limited, there’s a much larger, wide-open window to come. I can easily imagine a point down the road when, looking back, we think of the current generation of VR devices the same way you might think about your first apartment or car. Sure, it might’ve been small and dingy, a little uncomfortable and occasionally unreliable. But you look back on it with fondness for the freedom, independence, and opportunity it represented.

Personally, I can’t wait to see where this road leads.

You can find more pictures from my first VR experiences on my Tumblr here.

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