Hands-on with the new $399 Oculus Rift S: More pixels, zero webcams, better fit

Behold, the Oculus Rift S, the VR company's newest wired PC headset produced by Lenovo. From this angle, you can see four of its five built-in sensing cameras, including two in the front, two on the sides (slightly pointing down), and an upward-facing sensor.
Enlarge / Behold, the Oculus Rift S, the VR company’s newest wired PC headset produced by Lenovo. From this angle, you can see four of its five built-in sensing cameras, including two in the front, two on the sides (slightly pointing down), and an upward-facing sensor.

SAN FRANCISCO—One thing was conspicuously missing from the Oculus demos at GDC 2019: cameras.

You need at least two (if not three) of the company’s signature webcams to run its PC headset, the Oculus Rift. Those cameras are not great. They come with funky, oversized stands. They’re not as effective at sensing a headset as the HTC Vive‘s “dumb” infrared boxes. And they must be plugged into a PC, which creates a certain kind of cord hell and requires a PC with plenty of spare USB 3.0 slots.

So, as we filed into this week’s demo center of mock “living room” spaces, complete with VR headsets, the lack of Oculus cameras was apparent. Indeed, it was a statement.

“This is out-of-the-box room scale,” Oculus co-founder Nate Mitchell said as he gestured to the Oculus Rift S, the new PC-focused VR headset launching “this spring” for $399. This headset will effectively replace the standard Oculus Rift headset, which has had production all but halted to make way for the new model. For $50 more than the existing Rift retail package, Rift S owners will get a few perks, including a nearly 100-percent boost in pixel resolution (up to 1280×1440 per eye).

The Rift S will also include two updated Oculus Touch controllers (one for each hand), a single cable that connects to a PC (1 x DisplayPort, 1 x USB 3.0), and zero external cameras. Instead, like the previously announced Oculus Quest, the Oculus Rift S will have built-in cameras that combine infrared and RGB sensors to map your room—and function whether you stand, sit, kneel, or twirl.

We did all of those silly actions, along with plenty more, with an Oculus Rift S strapped to our heads.

A great thing I did not notice

In addition to the lack of external sensors, the Oculus Rift S includes one other surprise: a prominent Lenovo logo. Oculus confirmed that Lenovo took the lead on producing this headset. Oculus executives would not confirm exactly how the design work was split between the two companies, other than to say that the product is the “best of both companies coming together to deliver something entirely new.”

Oculus clearly handled one piece of the Rift S design puzzle: its built-in cameras, dubbed “Oculus Insight.” The cameras largely resemble the ones coming to the company’s other big “coming soon” headset, the Oculus Quest. That wholly wireless headset includes a built-in Snapdragon 835 SoC, but it only includes four sensing cameras. As the above galleries show, the Rift S has the same four-camera array, along with a new fifth sensor positioned at the top of its head-mounted display (HMD).

I was immediately intrigued by this fifth sensor, because I’d already been charmed by the handheld Oculus Touch controllers—and by how well Oculus Quest recognizes a room. But I knew that the Quest choked on a few of the wilder gesticulations that VR games and apps can require. What if I want to raise my arms to the sky or prime an arrow, pull it back, and shoot it from a bow?

My first Oculus Rift S demo, which took place within the upcoming Insomniac Games VR adventure Stormland, let me test this functionality with a handy real-time shadow system. I could stand against any light source, turn around, and see my robo-body’s shadow and its arm motions while looking straight ahead. This confirmed that above-the-head hand motions were neatly and accurately mapped. However, priming my hand in that medieval bow-and-arrow way did falter.

As a guy who likes rudimentary VR combat (V-archery?), I was a bit bummed. But something more notable did not emerge after my 20 minutes within Stormland: fatigue.

Oculus Rift S combines crucial upgrades that, even in its preview state, may make it my new number-one choice for “consumer grade” PC VR. First up: those built-in sensors. After a full hour of testing the Rift S in multiple demos, it’s clear that it does a noticeably better job tracking my head and hands within a virtual environment than Oculus Rift’s external cameras ever did. And it never crapped out when I rolled the wired-VR dice or whipped around like a goofball.

I got on my knees. I strafe-stepped. I crawled. It all worked.


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