How Oculus Rift works: Everything you need to know about the VR sensation

From your PC to your eyeballs and the bits in between
Wareable is reader-powered. If you click through using links on the site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

The Oculus Rift may look like a relatively simple device but it's actually a pretty amazing piece of kit packing a wealth of cutting-edge tech. The hugely exciting virtual reality headset includes a whole bunch of amazing hardware designed to create a sense of complete immersion in a three-dimensional world.

When you realise what's in there, it's hardly surprising that it's taken this long to come up with a virtual reality system which actually works – and there's still a lot of room for improvement.

Essential reading: Best games for Oculus Rift

The Oculus team has spent months tweaking the design and hardware. CES 2015 saw the addition of Head-Related Transfer Function technology for 3D audio and, more recently, the team confirmed a dual display setup for the latest prototype and consumer edition of the headset.

Here we've analysed every single bit of the final, consumer-ready version of the Oculus Rift, from the prodigious headset itself to the device that connects it to your computer and the Oculus Touch wireless controllers (which won't ship until later this year) .

The games


Creating 3D gaming environments is a complicated business, even if they're just going to be shown on a 2D monitor. Add in stereoscopic 3D and it all becomes a crazy nightmare made of formulae and vomit. There is no hard and fast way to create 3D for Oculus Rift, but the nuts-and-bolts basics of it involve spitting out two near-square video feeds to the same screen – think playing a vertically-split-screen two-player game.

The clever bit is that each feed comes from a slightly different angle, so that the player's brain is tricked into thinking that two 2D images are one 3D one. You can experience this by looking at a nearby thing (look at that thing!) and then closing your left or right eye and seeing how the angle changes just ever so slightly.

Oculus has detailed 30 games that are ready for launch…

The games themselves also have to change: motion blur, which has been used for years as a way to simulate speed and reduce strain on the GPU, no longer works. Cutscenes with static cameras induce nausea. A demanding 60 frames-per-second frame rate has to be maintained to prevent stuttering and shutter effects.

The cable


Video is sent to the Oculus Rift via HDMI, with an optional DVI adapter for laptops and newer graphics cards. It also includes USB, which carries data and power to the device, and lets your computer know what this bizarre gizmo is. This 10-foot cable is just the right length to provide a consistently good signal without any degradation, while remaining reasonably light so you don't feel like a dog chained to a lamppost. Which is great unless you're playing a VR game about being a dog chained to a lamppost.

The headset also includes a USB port so you could potentially connect a controller, or some USB headphones, or a novelty singing cactus. This increases the power draw of the Rift, so Oculus has chucked in a mains adapter with US, UK, Australian and European plugs which connects to the same junction as the positional tracker.

The positional tracker


Oculus has been through various different iterations of its tracking technology – essential if it wants to know where you are in 3D space – and the final consumer version is going to keep tabs on you via a small microphone-shaped pole on top of your desk. Discreet and black, it's designed to blend in with whatever else you have on there (like a set of speakers or a pair of headphones).

Essential reading: Samsung Gear VR review

A series of infrared LEDs embedded in the headset are then monitored by this wireless sensor in what Oculus calls the Constellation Tracking System – Nintendo's Wii Nunchuks work in much the same way. On DK2 you couldn't look behind you when you were in a virtual world because the LEDs fell out of the camera's field of view, but that's been fixed on the consumer release, and by adding LEDS into the rear of the headset as well as the front, Oculus Rift now offers users full 360 degree perspective.

The headset


All this feeds into the headset, which connects to your head via vertical and horizontal straps, with the uppermost strap including the HDMI and USB cable. Further customisation is achieved with two pairs of lenses, which magnify the screen so it fills your field of view without causing any blurring or motion sickness (at least in theory).

"It feels like you just put on a pair of glasses," said Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe at the most recent press event; and speaking of glasses, the final consumer version of the headset has been adapted to accommodate as many frame sizes and types as possible, so you won't have to switch to contacts to dive into a virtual reality experience.

Essential reading: Oculus Rift vs Project Morpheus

Meanwhile, a dial integrated into the headset lets you adjust the lenses to suit your face – essentially, it lets you match the Oculus to however close or far away from each other your eyes are. All this means the same headset should be light and comfortable now matter how oddly shaped your head or thick your spectacles.

The components

Within the headset sits a single custom motherboard, which includes an ARM processor and control chips for the LEDs. But the most insane bit here is the "Adjacent Reality Tracker" which was developed independently of the Oculus Rift and has since become a key component.

This features a magnetometer, a gyroscope and an accelerometer, all of which combine to accurately track the Rift across all three dimensions of three-dimensionality.

The original Adjacent Reality Tracker polled at 250 times a second (250Hz), but the team at Oculus has managed to pump it up to 1,000 times a second. The result is tracking of infinitesimally tiny head movements, even if you're on a rollercoaster during an earthquake.

The screen


In Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 the screen was essentially an entire Samsung Galaxy Note 3 phablet with the smartphone bits removed, but with the completely useless touchscreen and logo intact. Its 1920 x 1080 HD resolution delivered a 960 x 1080 display to each eye; its refresh rate of 60Hz kept things smooth, and a 100-degree horizontal field of view meant there wasn't too much black space around the edge of the display.

The consumer version of the Rift release pushes both resolution and refresh rate even higher and it has been confirmed that there are now two displays running at a total resolution of 2160 x 1200.

The feedback loop

A huge amount of data is continually sent back and forth between the positional tracker, the headset, the computer and its software, and the result is an incredibly smooth VR experience.

Adjustments such as brightness and contrast are made via Oculus' software, which also includes the ability to calibrate the Rift (setting your height and so on). We're still waiting for details of what software comes bundled with the Rift, but there should at least be a few natty demos to try out.

The audio


As mentioned in the intro, Oculus gave the headset a massive boost in January 2015 at CES when it announced that an upcoming Oculus Audio SDK would allow the use of Head-Related Transfer Function (HRTF) tech, combined with the Rift's head tracking to create a sense of true 3D audio spatialisation. This will allow Rift developers to immerse users "sonically in a virtual world, surrounded by realistic sounds in all directions."

"HRTFs simulate the changes to a sound when it reaches your head from a point in space," explained the company. "It does this by referencing data that represents changes that would happen to a sound coming from that direction. There is data for hundreds of points around your head, and the software smooths the audio between those points for a natural sound, regardless of head or sound source position."

The most recent audio upgrade on the consumer version of the Rift is the detachable set of headphones to keep your ears in the moment as well as your eyes, and if you don't like the bundled headphones then you can swap them out for a pair of your own. The audio is spatialised and encoded in 360-degree surround sound to precisely match the video.

Xbox integration


One of the biggest announcements at Oculus' pre-E3 event was a partnership with Microsoft that brings with it a wireless Xbox One controller with every Rift, plus the ability to play a selection of existing 2D games in the 3D setting of your choice (like a huge virtual cinema, for example). What this means for future VR games on the Xbox platform we'll have to wait and see.

The Microsoft partnership means Windows 10 compatibility is built-in, giving developers the opportunity to create virtual reality experiences on top of Microsoft's operating system, but you're going to need a fairly beefy PC system to run all of this – Oculus says the Nvidia GTX 970 GPU is the benchmark as far as recommended graphics specifications go.

Oculus Touch


New at the pre-E3 Oculus event were two wireless controllers called Oculus Touch. Like a gamepad split in half, these controllers give you a more immersive VR experience: you can use them to reach out into virtual space, make hand gestures and more besides.

Like the Xbox One controller, they work wirelessly, but they are optional extras on top of the main package – and they won't start shipping until after the Rift has gone on sale. We don't yet know how much they'll cost, either.

The Oculus Touch set offers a more intuitive and natural way of controlling your virtual reality experience, but considering there's an Xbox controller included with the Rift, the Touch might end up being a luxury buy that most don't bother with. Game support is going to be important too.

Touch controllers are currently delayed until late 2016.

Oculus Home


When you switch on your swanky new VR headset, you'll see a brand new interface called Oculus Home. This lets you view available games and other content, check up on which of your friends (or enemies) are currently online, and control device settings.

Oculus developers say they've built Home to let you do everything you need to do within the same interface, from buying new games to chatting with contacts. A battery level icon and a virtual clock are included for that very reason.

Check out our headgear hub for more Oculus Rift info and news on the VR industry.


How we test


David is a freelance tech writer who has been writing about technology, gadgets and gizmos for more than 20 years.

You can find his work on The Guardian, Wired, Gizmodo, PopSci, TechRadar, T3 and many other major publications on the web and in print.

He spends all day, (almost) every day testing out, explaining, and reviewing smartphones, laptops, smart home kit, wearables, and other essential devices.

From iOS to Wear OS, from Samsung to Sony, he's got an intimate knowledge of almost everything going on in the world of technology right now. When it comes to wearables, there aren't many smartwatches, fitness trackers and VR headsets that he hasn't tried and tested – which means he has a wealth of experience to draw on when it comes to talking about something new or the market in general.

Related stories