The main components of the Oculus Rift headset

Teardown: Oculus Rift VR DK2

The 3D gaming headset keeps getting smarter.

Back in June 2013, we looked at the original developer kit for the Rift 3D virtual reality headset from Oculus VR, targeting immersive gaming and movies. Over the summer, this poster child for crowdfunded hardware released the DK2, its second-generation dev kit. Then in September, Samsung unveiled an early commercial implementation, the Gear VR Innovator Edition, designed for use with the Galaxy Note 4 tablet.Progress, people, progress – and the DK2 shows it happening.

Its most immediately striking feature could lead you to think of it as ‘The Andy Serkis Edition’. Like an earlier prototype, the headset now incorporates 40 IR LEDs that light up to make you look ready to play Gollum, King Kong or Caesar in motion capture – the prototype had the LEDs on the outside, but for DK2 they have been integrated behind the front panel.

The LEDs work with an external IR camera to track positional movements of the head, and their output is shielded from what the user sees inside the headset. The unit retains the gyroscope, accelerometer and magnetometer that track 360-degree orientation.

As iFixit’s Teardown team notes: “[The IR LEDs allow the Rift to] track the position of your head in 3D space, relative to the sensor. When you lean in to examine a virtual object, the environment zooms in to translate your movement, adding another layer of interactivity and realism.”

So another major step forward in terms of verisimilitude. And an important one.

It is worth noting, as with Samsung’s ‘Gear’ smartwatches, that the Korean company’s use of Oculus VR’s technology is itself a pathfinder. According to the chaps at Tech Radar, Oculus wants to get a production-run headset of its own out there on a soft consumer release next summer. The Google Glass roll-out is a good analogue here.

This dev kit is a more aggressive bid to seed the mass market. Assuming further gaming company interest and market development cycles, and then the process of gathering feedback from an initial consumer ‘beta’, it is probably fair to say that make-or-break for the Oculus Rift is Christmas 2016.

That’s not as far off as it sounds. In context, it means that Oculus has added a fair bit more than the Serkis twinkle.

There is also a new software developer kit (SDK). It has been branded as version 0.4.0, but still includes 6DOF support for positional tracking and allows for direct rendering to the Rift rather than treating it as a separate/mirrored device. Ongoing updates are promised and the changeover is substantial enough that developers will have to reintegrate ported applications for the new SDK.

From a hardware point of view, Oculus has thought more about industrial design, and not just by hiding the LEDs inside.

The original developer kit was interesting but looked more like a lightweight head-mounted movie camera than a consumer product, particularly with its hard-edged rectangular screen. The DK2 has rounded edges and smaller dimensions – though the weight has increased to 453g from 395g largely because of the LEDs. A bit bulkier than Oculus will ultimately want, but DK2 is nevertheless more akin to a set of goggles for the GoPro generation.

Staying with the optics, lenses and caps – the latter for those of us who wear glasses – are installed and changed using a simple twist-and-lift fitting.

More importantly, the component specification concentrates on off-the-shelf devices like its predecessor. For example, a lot of the heavy lifting for the core ‘adjacent reality tracker’ is once more done by a ‘value line’ STMicroelectronics device based on the ARM Cortex-M3 processor.

The resolution per eye has been lifted from DK1’s 640x800px to 960x1080px (Oculus’ baseline target) by simply incorporating the 5.7in Super AMOLED display from a Samsung Galaxy Note 3. The main tweak has been to overclock the 60MHz refresh rate to 75MHz for smoother motion and, among other things, less risk of motion sickness.

The display is a case of dev kit pragmatism and a dedicated unit will surely feature in the full production version. On the DK2, the iFixit team notes that the screen has been dropped in ‘as is’ – it still has its Synaptics touchscreen controller. “Maybe they’re planning on releasing an eyelash touchscreen controller add-on later,” says iFixit. More to the point, its gurus observe: “This seems to make economic sense, since Oculus is working to ship something like 45,000 DK2s – a goodly number for a mid-development prototype, but certainly not enough to warrant a fully custom display. It looks like Oculus is already taking advantage of its partnership with Samsung.”

This again emphasises the need for openness that has gone into the DK2’s design. As a start-up in a potentially huge market, Oculus needs to ‘show its working’. So, the DK2 is easier to pull apart using traditional screws rather than the gobbits of glue more common in today’s finished products. iFixit gives it a 9/10 repairability score.

By letting users poke around inside and see that Oculus can realise VR by leveraging its own IP through off-the-shelf technology, the company sends out an enticing message: This kind of product can be brought to market at a price point necessary for an aftermarket gaming peripheral. Samsung looks keen, but there are also the likes of Apple, Microsoft, Nintendo, LG and Sony to consider.

Oculus co-founder Nate Mitchell has set a consumer target price for the company’s own headset of between £125 and £250. That is a wide range, and the hard reality has to be towards the lower end. Notwithstanding Oculus’s undoubted desire to get as good a margin as it can, the DK2 suggests that should be doable.

This is the kind of dev kit that Oculus needed to release. Keep on keeping on, chaps. 

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