I’m old enough that I’ve had my heart broken by virtual reality before. In 1992 I waited on line for forty-five minutes for a chance to play Dactyl Nightmare. I’ll never have that time back. And the emotional scars that Nintendo’s Virtual Boy left on my heart have not healed.
But they feel a lot better now that I’ve seen Oculus Rift.
There’s a lot of hype about this device, but I was keeping my expectations low. I’ve been hurt before. Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset developed by an independent company that got some of its funding from a Kickstarter campaign last year. It’s been endorsed by a lot of major figures in the gaming world, but I only got interested last month when John Carmack—the industry legend who developed the technology behind Doom and Quake, and who is pretty much the definition of credibility in my book—signed on as CTO. What I saw was still a prototype, but it’s well past the glue-gun phase: it looks like a pair of black plastic ski goggles with a big opaque lens. It’s light and pretty comfortable, and it fit over my glasses.
But to get to the point: it works. They put me in a demo based on the Unreal 4 engine. Nothing fancy, just a winter landscape, a looming castle, light snow falling out of a darkening sky. The feeling of immersion is difficult to capture in words, but as soon as you’ve got the headset on you realize that every time you’ve played a video game, ever, your mind has been doing the work of ignoring the fact that your peripheral vision is full of reality: non-game stimuli. Once you put Oculus Rift on, you can stop working. You can relax. Your peripheral vision is full of game.
It didn’t sink in fully till my native guide—Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe—suggested I look behind me. As I turned my head to look over my shoulder, and the viewpoint tracked accordingly, I kept expecting to get to the edge of the frame…but there is no edge. You’re all the way in. The circle of the world is complete. The goggles followed my head movements smoothly—I noticed no glitches. I looked up, straight up into the purple sky, and saw snowflakes sifting down from directly above me; I almost expected to feel them settling on my face. At that point my brain said no más. It surrendered to the illusion completely.
Caveats? It’s disconcerting looking down and not seeing your own body in the game-world with you—there’s a definite moment of dude where’s my torso. I’ve also heard reports of people getting nauseous or disoriented in Oculus Rift, but they may have been using earlier prototypes that weren’t precise enough to pass your inner ear’s bullshit test. It may just be that I’m a good test subject for this kind of thing: I’m one of those people whose inner ears are easily fooled, and I have a stomach of iron—I don’t get motion sickness.
But those are just footnotes to what was an astoundingly compelling experience. I’m sold: VR is being cracked, and these are the guys who are doing it. Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to get early pre-release looks at some transformative, breakthrough technologies, including Xbox 360, Wii and Kinect. This felt like those. It’s going to change the game.