Virtual Reality Bites Back
Published May 06, 2014I use my finger to sign an insanely long iPad release form, which I don't pretend to read, and step inside a wooden compartment. A woman places goggles over my face and headphones over my ears. I think I must look silly, but the thought's fleeting as the wooden lift I'm in starts "rising," rapidly climbing 700 feet to the top of the wall.
Or rather, The Wall — the one separating the Seven Kingdoms from the wildlings and white walkers of the North. I look down and my knees buckle a bit. My brain is aware this reality is virtual; my senses are somewhat less convinced.
Reaching the top I take an involuntary step forward, bumping into edge of the compartment that I can no longer see, even out of my peripheral vision. I look up and down, this way and that, as I take in the 3D simulation I'm seemingly standing inside of. At no point is the illusion shattered, especially when I look down — which is also when I notice the northerners massing down below, and their catapults and, oh, that flaming ball of fire flying right at me!
The Game of Thrones exhibition at SXSW this year may have boasted cool costumes, tiny dragons, and Common rapping about Red Weddings, but its clear ruler was the "Ascend the Wall" virtual reality experience using an Oculus Rift prototype headset.
Oculus VR — founded in 2012 by then-19-year-old Palmer Luckey with money he made mining Bitcoin before getting cash infusions from Kickstarter and eventually venture capital firms — was also the breakout tech of SXSW Interactive, but controversially sold itself to Facebook days later for over $2 billion.
The sale caused Oculus Rift's cool cred (at least as much as a dorky-looking headset can claim) to plummet — Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson even cancelled plans for a port because "Facebook creeps me out" — but it also got the world talking about VR again.
Virtual reality has been gaming's Holy Grail since the mid-'80s when technologist Jaron Lanier popularized the term and William Gibson brought it to fictional life in cyberpunk stories like Neuromancer. The following decade saw VR take an ever more prominent place in popular culture with movies like Lawnmower Man, Johnny Mnemonic, Strange Days, eXistenZ and The Matrix, a film genre that would later inspire Luckey to start Oculus.
But when Nintendo tried to bring it into actual reality with their Virtual Boy headset in 1995, it was a technological and commercial failure, and discontinued within a year. Sega's own prototype, announced in 1991, never even made it to market. Other attempts remain even more obscure.
So gaming went on its merry way, going HD, moving into motion-sensing and expanding into non-VR online worlds. There was an aborted attempt at 3DTV gaming, but that turned out as popular as Virtual Boy.
But even in failure, VR was able to inspire legendary developer John Carmack to pioneer the first-person shooter genre with DOOM. Last year, he quit iD Software, the studio he co-founded in 1991, to become the Chief Technology Officer at Oculus.
"I believe that VR will have a huge impact in the coming years, but everyone working today is a pioneer," he wrote in the CTO announcement. "The paradigms that everyone will take for granted in the future are being figured out today, probably by people reading this message. It's certainly not there yet. There is a lot more work to do, and there are problems we don't even know about that will need to be solved, but I am eager to work on them."
So what exactly is Oculus Rift? Well, it's a headset with earphones, goggles, accelerometers and a camera that tracks your head movements so you can look all around a virtual stereoscopic 3D world that fills your entire field of vision, tricking your brain into thinking you're inside it rather than watching a screen. But while your ears and eyes are relatively easily fooled — at least now that they've eliminated lag and its accompanying nausea, or "simulation sickness" — your hands are more of a problem.
Oculus sells itself as a games company, but new owner, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, promises that "after games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home."
Those passive experiences actually seem easier to realize than gaming, which requires interaction. So far Oculus games have used traditional joypad controllers or keyboard-and-mouse, thus breaking the illusion. But other start-ups are working on their own motion and gesture-control solutions. Canadian company Thalmic Lab's Myo armband, for instance, uses muscle activity and EMG signals to offer control via Bluetooth, and their tech demo with an Oculus Rift dev kit points the way forward.
Another challenge is that Luckey has already said Oculus is intended for computers, not consoles, which he deems "too limited" and is likely why he sold to Facebook instead of Microsoft, despite PC gaming being a niche. No matter, Sony just announced its own Matrix-referencing VR headset prototype Project Morpheus for the PS4, which looks like wraparound shades and works with the Playstation Move motion-controller. Microsoft hasn't made a similar announcement, but VR pioneer Jaron Lanier does work in their research labs and Xbox head Phil Spencer recently revealed "it's definitely something we've been playing with for quite a while." (Nintendo's said nothing on the subject, perhaps in hopes of avoiding Virtual Boy jokes adding to their Wii U woes.)
It's easy to dismiss VR, especially for those who grew up on those silly '90s movies or bought the absurd hype for 3DTVs, until you actually try its current incarnation. The tech is simply too great of a leap forward.
But right now strapping on a Rift rig is like looking through the peephole of an Edison Kinetoscope so it will take some time before it evolves into the equivalent of, say, Gravity in IMAX 3D. It'll be for hardcore gamers and tech enthusiasts for quite some time, but its future is so bright, we'll all eventually be wearing VR shades.