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CNET VR Day turns admirers into true believers

What happens when over 1,000 people sign up to try virtual reality headsets? We found out after hosting hands-on demos at our headquarters in San Francisco.

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Tyler flew to San Francisco from Kansas for the day just to test out the Oculus Rift. Stephanie tried the HTC Vive to see if it was as immersive as it's been billed by reviewers.

And Jesse stood in line three times so he could try out the Rift, Vive and Samsung's Gear VR.

It's been a big few weeks for virtual reality. Facebook released the long-awaited Rift on March 28 to critical acclaim, with CNET's Sean Hollister calling it "breathtaking" though not a must-have. Earlier this week, HTC began selling the Vive, which CNET's Scott Stein said offers a "flat-out amazing virtual reality experience."

So we decided to give our readers a chance to strap on these new devices, along with Gear VR, and see for themselves if the experience matches the excitement. Within three hours of putting out the invite for CNET VR Day, we had more than 1,000 readers sign up. After waiting a max of 40 minutes in line Wednesday, they spent about 10 minutes inside our San Francisco headquarters trying out each device. They viewed games, animation and a clip from Disney's upcoming movie, "The Jungle Book."

CNET opened its doors Wednesday to hundreds of people curious about virtual reality.

James Martin/CNET

Most visitors were impressed.

"You're just transported to another world," said Yves, 41, a software developer who works at a startup across San Francisco Bay, in Alameda, after playing with the Oculus Rift. "You feel isolated. The thing completely encloses you. You are fooled into thinking you are operating in a completely different environment. It's gonna be great to feel transported to other planets, other parts of the world or whatever. From that perspective, VR really achieves its goal."

Marc, a 35-year-old facilities worker from Menlo Park, California, said the HTC Vive "meets the hype." While some people are tentative when they first try VR headsets, Marc quickly reached for things as he turned in circles and bent toward the floor. "You don't get the feeling of it being all around you until you put it on," he said.

Liina has been playing with VR for the past two years and thinks the latest generation offers a more "seamless" experience than ever before. "You didn't feel as inside," she said. "I did a roller coaster ride at the Samsung Galaxy Studio a few of weeks ago, and it was the first time I'd had that body experience where you had the feeling of your stomach dropping. It was amazing. I could see an amusement park setting up shop with VR. I'd pay money to do that."

Jesse, a 27-year-old manufacturing engineer, came to CNET VR Day to compare all three headsets. He was wowed by the Gear VR. "Before you even know it, you're in this new world. You're playing a game or you're watching a movie, and the movies feel a lot more personal. It feels like they're talking to you."

The only drawback? With so much to look at, you might miss something important. "There's a little anxiety about that, like you're watching the sky and something else is going on," said Jesse. "What happens if you miss something?"

Stephanie, a 26-year-old VR research scientist, was less than thrilled with the HTC Vive running "Job Simulator: the 2050 archives." It's hard to tell if her problem was with the Vive or the game. "It's too simple," she said. "And the environment is clearly artificial. It's a little bit fake. For me, if you can have a more real environment, it's more convincing."

David, who works on the security team at CNET's headquarters, has some reservations about the tech.

"Reality is rooted in the simultaneous experience of multiple senses. When I walk on the beach, I feel the dampness of the sand and its finely textured grains between my toes. I hear it crunch beneath my feet," he said. "Today's virtual reality doesn't do that.

"Don't get me wrong. What we already have is neat. But it doesn't convince me -- not even for a moment -- that what I'm experiencing is real. The lags, subtle distortions and imperfections of perspective remind me that what I'm encountering isn't real. It's closer to a dream. A cool, amazing dream. A virtual dream."

With reporting by Connie Guglielmo, Rochelle Garner, Richard Nieva, James Martin and Lexy Savvides.

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