What Oculus Rift's new HD & spatial awareness features offer interactive designers

We explore what Oculus Rift's HD and Crystal Cove VR headsets could offer interactive and experiential designers after prototypes with new HD and spatial awareness features were spotted at CES.

Las Vegas has this week played host to the world's biggest tech event, the Consumer Electronic Show (CES). Among the new technology being shown off at the show were two new versions of the Oculus Rift visual reality headset, both in prototype form.

Currently, the Oculus Rift VR headset is available to developers at a cost of £300, which means that, in addition to games developers, other creative agencies can get their hands on the device at a relatively low cost to begin experimenting with new concepts that the Oculus Rift makes possible.

Not only does Oculus Rift present an opportunity to develop immersive 3D gaming experiences, future versions could also offer designers the ability to create personal branded experiences, from test-driving vehicles to visualising home décor.

Digital Arts Editor-in-chief Matt Egan trying out the Oculus Rift Developer Kit at Specialmoves.

Among those experimenting with Oculus Rift is London-based agency Specialmoves. When we visited the Specialmoves studio to try out the Oculus Rift for ourselves last year (above), the agency was quick to point out its limitations. Those included the low resolution of visuals shown, as well as the need for a game controller to control your way around environments.

The two new prototypes spotted at CES this week prove that the makers of Oculus Rift are on their way to addressing those issues. Oculus Rift HD offers a 1080p resolution, while the Crystal Cove headset features position-tracking that responds to the user's physical head and upper-body movements. The Crystal Cove prototype is also smoother and is less laggy than the original.

Photographs of the Oculus Rift HD Protoype spotted CES 2014

We caught up with Specialmoves founder Pascal Auberson to find out what he thinks about the new improvements, and how he envisions the new offerings being used by interactive and experiential designers.

Immersion improvements

Pascal said that, while he hasn't yet had the chance to try out the new Oculus Rift prototypes, he thinks the HD resolution is certainly a welcome addition, though he's still not sure whether 1080p will be enough.

The Crystal Cove's low persistence display, on the other hand, has sparked Pascal's interest. "Hopefully this will really reduce the motion blur seen in the developer version," he tells us, adding that the spatial positioning "should give a better sense of immersion."

"Creating a great VR experience needs high levels of immersion and natural way to navigate that world," Pascal continues. "The immersion level is improving with these new features and hopefully will get better still for the final release."

The Myo Gesture Control Armband senses movements in the user's arm muscles

What Pascal really wants to see from Oculus is a new navigation and interaction system designed for VR, because, even with the new position-tracking features in Crystal, a gamepad is still required for use. He suggests that Oculus could partner with a company such as Thamlic Labs, which has unveiled a Myo Gesture Control Armband (above), a device that could act as the control system for Oculus Rift to create a truly immersive experience.

Taking control

Specialmoves actually created its own navigation mechanism for the Oculus Rift last year, for its Oculus Skydive experience shown off at the Wired 2013 conference in October.

The project (below) involved the Rift-wearing user sitting in a swing seat and moving their body from left to right as they floated down over London. This movement was picked up by a cleverly positioned iPhone, thanks to the built-in gyroscope feature in Apple's smartphone.

Pascal says that this novel interaction made up for the low resolution of the display. If Specialmoves were to recreate this project using the new Oculus prototypes, the interaction wouldn't need to make up for the resolution, and would instead simply improve upon the overall experience.

Additionally, the spatial awareness could enable users of the experience to look around while they're floating by simply moving their head from side to side.

Overall, though, Pascal says: "The new features in the Oculus Rift prototypes don't enable you to create much you couldn't before, but with the current developer version you sometimes hear people say, "it's a bit blurry" or "I feel a bit sick". The new features should minimise that, but I suspect they've still got a little way to go yet.

There's no word yet on when the Oculus Rift will be ready for consumers to buy, though the company was projecting a late 2014 consumer launch during a presentation in April 2013.

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