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Facebook's Oculus gives you a VR room of your own

The social network's VR company is offering a prerelease version of its latest software designed to let you create a unique space in VR.

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Facebook's VR company is revamping the way you use its software starting Wednesday.

James Martin/CNET

Every great hero has a secret lair.

Batman has his Batcave, filled with high-tech gear, cars -- and even a giant animatronic T-Rex. Charles Xavier has the School for Gifted Youngsters, with its secret underground bunker for storing aircraft and bad guys. And Superman has his hideaway, the Fortress of Solitude.

Now Oculus wants to make sure you have someplace you can call your own.

On Wednesday, Facebook's VR subsidiary will start offering a prerelease version of Oculus Home, a virtual room that you can outfit pretty much however you want. Think of it as a computer-generated Pottery Barn catalog, mixed with flourishes like an old video game console, art, rubber duckies and a bow with arrows you can shoot into the stars.

Don't see what you want? No problem. You'll eventually be able to create whatever items suit your fancy.

And everything can be interactive, like a private miniature golf course where you can play a round of nine holes. Just watch out for the giant robot spider.

All that's required is a $399 Oculus Rift headset, included touch controllers and a computer powerful enough to drive it all. Oculus Home software is free and will be released early next year as part of a larger free software package called Rift Core 2.0.

"What, this old thing? It's just my second home -- in VR."

Oculus

"We put a lot of time and energy into making this stuff feel great," said Brandon Dillon, product manager for the project.

Along with Oculus Home, the Rift Core 2.0 will include a revamped app store that's easier to navigate than the existing one and a pop-up menu called Dash that makes it easier to switch between programs or respond to friends while in the middle of a game. Dash is designed to be used in pretty much any VR app.

VR, which relies on audiovisual headsets you strap over your eyes, can trigger psychological and neurological responses that make you feel immersed in a digital universe. Oculus believes the ability to customize VR to suit your tastes will be make you feel even more at home.

"We're giving you a space that belongs to you," said Nate Mitchell, an Oculus co-founder and head of product.

VR meets the movies

If you talk about VR with someone in the tech industry long enough, a book will inevitably come up in the conversation. It's called "Ready Player One."

The epic sci-fi novel by Ernest Cline, set in a futuristic United States, follows the adventures of a young man named Wade Watts as he seeks a treasure, battles an evil corporation and pursues a crush. But instead of taking place in space or some fantastical world, Watts is sitting in a room in the US, wearing a VR headset.

This 2011 book, which is liberally peppered with inside references to pop culture and games from the past three decades, became such an inspiration to VR enthusiasts that Oculus has been handing it out to new employees for years. The book was even among the favors given to fans at its first developer conference in 2014. (For his part, Dillon says he's more a fan of Neal Stephenson's VR epic "Snow Crash.")

It probably comes as no surprise then that one of the subplots of "Ready Player One," which will be released as a movie by Steven Spielberg early next year, is the virtual homes Watts and other characters created for themselves.

One, for example, created the ideal geek den, complete with old video games and trinkets from geek culture through the decades. Another constructed a virtual reproduction of his childhood town.

Watts built his home in an asteroid. There's even a nightclub in VR.

Mitchell smiled when I referenced these things. Oculus was so taken with these ideas that it even included retro-style video game consoles as objects you can place in your virtual home, just like characters from "Ready Player One."

Plug these retro-style cartridges into the game console in VR, hit the power button, and you can play a real game.

Oculus

The bigger question is whether experiences like Oculus Home will convince people to use VR more, particularly because sales of VR headsets have been tepid.

Oculus gives "you the ability to dress it up, but they haven't changed the reason why you would go there," said Patrick Joynt, a vice president of research at  consultancy Frank N. Magid Associates. "It sounds like a fun piece of software that won't justify extended use."

Mitchell is more hopeful. He sees features like being able to visit rooms with friends becoming more common as VR experiences. Meanwhile, being able to work on documents and surf the web while in your VR home may help it feel like more than just a gee-whiz trick.

"We're making VR more into a computing platform," Mitchell said. "We want you to be able to do more with the device."

So I'm prepared for the adventures of Ian-Man, a superhero tech journalist whose lair will be to die for.

I just have to build it first.

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