Intro

My Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 arrived on Thursday, ending a 20 year wait …

In 1994-5 I was taking classes in Computer Graphics, and special-ordering books like Garage VR and Zen of Code Optimization from the uni bookshop. VRML was going to be the next big thing any day now, and we couldn’t wait for the Metaverse.

At some point I gutted an old Toshiba laptop (monochrome T3400, if I remember correctly …) and tried to build a HMD out of the LCD panel. Cutting up a few plastic fresnel lenses, a set of plastic safety goggles and a whole lot of cardboard, I could produce two 320 pixel wide images out of the 640x480 greyscale panel. Using scan-line rendering meant I could calculate both images at the same time … trying to push enough performance out of the 33MHz 486 CPU to do real time rendering was not easy. Sadly, extending the display cable of the laptop degraded the signal and produced an odd plaid-like effect on the screen, the cardboard and duct tape construction was a bit shaky and the optics never did work very well. It went in the bin in some house move or another, and I can’t even find a photo of it now.

So, swept along on a great wave of nostalgia, I signed up for the Oculus Rift developer program …

First Impressions

These guys really now how to make a cardboard box. The Rift is obviously pretty close to actual production since all the niceties (plastic wraps on cables and little packets of silica) are all there already, and the inner carton is only a glossy surface away from being ready for retail.

The HMD itself … well, we’ve come a long way since cardboard and duct tape. It’s mostly just a plastic box surrounding some optics and the display from a Galaxy Note 3 but it is a comfy and adjustable box and fits pretty well with only a little daylight leaking in.

I tried it first on my Linux laptop with SDK 0.3.2 … there’s only one simple demo with it, which is a 3D world containing a house. It is very pretty, but there’s not much to it … so far as I can tell the world is entirely static. It’s enough to show up one shortcoming of the display technology though: for me at least the image seems very ‘gritty’, with individual pixels appearing as spots of light against a dark grid. Psychedelic flywire, kind of. This may be fixable in software, though, if the rendering engine can know a little more about the layout of the hardware pixels.

Head Tracking

The biggest revelation, straight away, is the head tracking. I haven’t got the IR tracker set up yet, but there’s an accelerometer in the DK2 and it works straight out of the box. Even with the lag caused by my slow laptop, the difference is astounding. Without head tracking, it’s just a TV stuck to your head. With it, it is just a little bit magic. You look up, and see the ceiling, and it really does come as a surprise to look down and not be able to see your own feet.

To Be Continued

Unfortunately the 3D performance on this laptop is a bit limited, and the latest SDK 0.4.1 isn’t out for Linux just yet anyway, so watch this space …

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