Virtual reality: fooling your senses into seeing something that's not there. Making the unreal real.
The technology has been percolating in fits and starts for the past 20 years. Now, it's not only here, it's the next frontier: companies from Facebook to Google to Microsoft know that VR is likely the next step up from phones, tablets and computer screens. Now, they're all they're jockeying to dominate the next big computing platform.
Samsung's Gear VR and Google Cardboard were just the start. The HTC Vive (coming next week) is the big competitor. And PlayStation VR, in October, may well be VR's mass market breakthrough. But the real race begins here, now, with the Oculus Rift.
Close your eyes and step inside. Things are about to get weird.
My eyes aren't here anymore. They're somewhere else. Once the eyepiece is over my face, I'm gone. Like looking through a window into another world.
It's a city that's in front of me. Trees sway gently. I know they're not real, but I look closely at them. I lift my head, I see sky. Blue like you'd rarely really see.
I look down. My legs are gone. I see wings. And a beak.
If I lean forward, the flower in front of me comes closer. I duck down towards it. I want to smell it.
It's a world I've moved into like I'm wearing a magic scuba mask. It's everywhere. And I hear a voice, too.
I turn around, and see the forest behind me. A cliff, rising up. A nest near the top, where my eggs are.
I've wanted to be other places, see other things. Now, at last, I feel like I'm really there.
It's a dream I've had since I was a child, that I've read about in science fiction books. To cast myself somewhere else. To open a magic door. It's the closest I've been to that dream.
As I spend more time here, I lose track of where the rest of my real body is.
I flap my wings and fly.
I place the Oculus Rift on my head, stretching its spring-loaded frame onto my skull. The visor slides down over my eyes. The lenses fill with light. It feels like I'm wearing a set of ski goggles attached to a baseball cap -- the most advanced baseball cap in the world.
For six hundred US dollars, it had better be. Not counting the hundreds I spent to upgrade my computer.
Inside the fabric-covered contraption, I see a computer-generated room. It's not very striking at first. It's a little bit grainy, like I'm looking through a fine mesh. My field of view seems a little small. But when I move my head, the room is all around. Whichever way I look, or lean, or even crouch down, my perspective shifts as if I were actually there.
This is not like having a tiny TV strapped to my face. Nothing like the Google Glass and Virtual Boy of yore. This feels like I've inserted my head into another world.
Admittedly a world where I'm wearing big, black goggle-cap that keeps me from seeing as clearly as I'd like. At least the straps are fairly comfortable, and you only have to adjust them once.
The visual artifacts don't always bug me. Like the drops of water on my car's windshield on a rainy day, I usually find myself ignoring the slightly blurry vision and the glowing halos that constantly appear around any bright object in the world.
Other times, they're all I can think about.
Sometimes, I want to take off the helmet. To feel the wind on my face. But as soon as I rip it off, I'm no longer a bird. I'm just a dude, sitting in his apartment, with sweat on my brow.
The story continues here.
There's something on the table. I lean forward; I can see it. I can reach forward and pick it up. Each of my hands, somewhere, are encased in plastic, buttons. In this world, I'm pushing through, holding the cup in my hands. I now look for the pot, the one on the stove. I lift it. I pour everything into the cup. And now, ever so carefully, I put the cup down on a table that doesn't exist.My head pokes into this world, and I can pull back at these magic pieces. I grab the pot and throw it across the room.I'm on a field. I lift my arm. The plays I'm meant to call are written across it. I touch one with my other hand. Then a ball lands in my hands, and I see my receiver. I raise my arm and throw.My hands are in front of me. I can see them, but they're metal, like crab claws. They're guns. They're clown gloves. They're dog paws. They're whatever they need to be. They change. But I can lift them, and move them. Or am I just pushing buttons? Am I moving, or dreaming I'm moving? It becomes so seamless I can't tell.I reach into my ear. I pull out a magic ball. I reach into my mouth. I pull out a flower.
I have no hands inside the Oculus Rift.
The headgear's hidden sensors let me nod, lean in, even cock my head to one side, but there are no hands to reach out and touch things with.
My options are a wireless Xbox One gamepad, or a little pill-shaped remote control if I merely want to navigate menus and adjust the volume. Both come bundled with the Rift.
Usually, the gamepad makes sense. Joysticks are no substitute for hands, but a lot of early Oculus games don't try to make you grab.
I'm in the cockpit of a starfighter now, where I'd have joysticks anyhow.
Or instead of looking through a video game character's eyes, I'm controlling them from a distance -- much like the Tomb Raider, Grand Theft Auto or Metal Gear games you'd play on an Xbox or PlayStation.
But after trying Oculus' own excellent Touch controllers -- coming this fall, for an unknown additional price -- the gamepad feels dated. Why can't I just point where I want my character to go? Why can't I just reach out and grab that virtual joystick in that virtual cockpit, instead of using real ones?
Without hands, the experience feels incomplete. So much so, that I'd say it's OK to wait for the Oculus Touch controllers before buying a Rift.
There are no walls here. Space stretches on forever. And a pile of sticks lies in front of me. A wheel. A pole.I walk over and pick up a stick, stretch it apart. I start joining it together with a wheel. I'm building something. I walk around it. I'm leaning down to fix it. I can lift it. I can carry it. At times, it feels like I'm really walking, step by step. Then, the room shrinks. Now I'm towering over it like a god. Space has changed again.I hear the drummer behind me. My bandmates are getting ready to perform. I see the crowd in front of me. I step forward; I walk to the microphone and yell out to the crowd. Suddenly I wonder, can I walk into the audience? Can I walk offstage? How far can I go?I see another space. I no longer feel my old world. But Now I'm in an astronaut suit, floating, trapped. I can't get up--I feel like I'm suffocating, I don't know how to escape. Which exits can I run through? Can I go through the hatch and float away forever? I want to keep going. But I don't know if I can.I feel the pull of a cord.The Reality:
With the Oculus Rift, my head might be in another world -- but the rest of my body is stuck inside these walls. I can't shake the feeling I'm being pulled between the real and the virtual.
In my real living room, a tether runs down the back of my skull. I'm jacked into the Matrix with a 13-foot cable that leads to a powerful desktop computer. I sit, or stand, in front of a camera that tracks my head's every move. Built-in headphones pipe in 3D audio and I can tell where the shots are coming from, even if I turn.
But if I move too far, or if something blocks the sensor, my real and virtual movements won't match up. If the game turns me a direction my real body isn't turned, subconscious alarm bells go off. I start to sweat. I get nauseous for hours if I don't stop.
So I sit or stand, instead of walking around.
In my real living room, the Rift isn't a nuisance. The single cable leading to the headset lies flat on the floor. I haven't tripped once. It's easy to wrap up, or even remove for easy storage.
Initial setup isn't so easy, though, especially when upgrading an older PC. Even though my 5-year-old processor was up to the task, my USB ports and graphics card didn't work. It turns out many don't.
Virtual reality is a complex illusion, and an easy one to break right now.
Dozens of dreams. A bookshelf full of experiences. I'm halfway through trying to save my friend from missile fire. I'm taking a break in a forest, watching an allosaurus hunt. Now I'm finishing my strange transparent car project. And now I'm watching real people, war veterans, telling stories. But they can't see me.Sometimes I want to stay in one place. Sometimes I want to leave. Sometimes I want to talk to people. Sometimes I don't want to be seen.Dozens of theater performances. Or games. Or films. Or experiences. Or dreams. One at a time, like experiential channel-surfing. How many doors can I go through before I feel like I should take a break?I'm staying here. It's a living room--not my living room. A space between spaces. I look at all the doors. I'm trying to decide which one I need next.The Reality:
In books and in movies, virtual reality is often a single shared world, a metaverse where people meet, work, hang out. Right now, the Rift is more like a game console.
The moment I place it on my head, I'm all alone in a Zen garden of a living room -- little rivers, a stepping stone path, a bonsai tree, the whole nine yards. But there's nothing to interact with save for a floating menu of 42 different titles, nearly all of them games.
Some of them are mind-blowing. I lost myself in BlazeRush, a hilariously unpredictable game where you fling a tiny Micro Machines-sized car around a racetrack while sending competitors to a fiery death. I was a kid playing with my toys again -- toys that come to life. It was 2 a.m. when I finally remembered to take off the visor.
I can say the same for Chronos, an adventure that had me literally looking around every corner before I dared let my hero venture out.
But most Oculus games are fairly shallow, at least compared to the hottest titles on Xbox and PlayStation. I wouldn't spend more than a few hours trying them out.
For every Chronos or EVE: Valkyrie -- which thrusts me into the cockpit of a starfighter in the midst of a frenetic multiplayer dogfight and keeps me coming back for more -- there are several ho-hum titles that I wouldn't have spent money on.
Still, we've seen that Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo can sell millions of game consoles on the backs of a few games. It doesn't take 42 great experiences -- just a couple of the right ones.
The Dream:Hi, mom. It's me. I'm here. I'm somewhere else right now. Come join me. Right around the corner.I'm outside. It comes with me. I can take these worlds around, now. It knows where I'm going, where my hands are, where my body is. I can be here, and be elsewhere. I can do two things at once. As I walk here, I'm walking somewhere else. I could be in an another body. I've "switched" with people, for an hour or two. I don't like more than that.In these glasses. Just glasses. I can open them up, or close them down. Let the real world in, or close it out. Allow the dreams to creep in just a bit, or all the way.In virtual reality, you can't see the wires. So why do they have to exist at all? In the real world, it can all disappear. Eventually, even the real world will seem like a dream. A blend, of the real world and the other. I can't even see the tech anymore.There are so many places to go, things to pick from. More experiences than stars in the sky. I'll never try them all. Just like regular life. But at least it knows what I like.A small flick of my fingers, a blink of my eyes, and I'm gone.
The exciting and frustrating thing about the Oculus Rift: It's easy to see how much better it can get.
Easy, because the rival HTC Vive has already shown us what it's like when you can add your hands and feet to virtual reality -- not just your head.
You can reach out and grab things with the HTC Vive's motion controllers and walk around a room. But the discrepancy won't last long: Oculus will let you do those things with the Oculus Touch motion controllers, coming this fall.
And there are other holes in the experience that Oculus will clearly fill. Like social interaction that goes beyond seeing which games my friends are playing. Movies to watch, concerts and basketball games to attend, with those friends in the same virtual room.
The ability to explore faraway places without ever being there physically. Or to learn to empathize with people of a different race, gender or economic situation by standing in their shoes for a day. To seamlessly blend virtual reality with the real world, instead of trying to block it out.
This is not just a dream, developers are working on all of them. They're just not here yet.
You simply must try the Oculus Rift. It's breathtaking. I just wouldn't buy one right now -- and there's no reason you should feel the need to, either. The longer you wait to buy, the better it will get. This is just day one for Oculus.