Virtual worlds about to become reality
2016 will be the breakthrough year as tech giants line up to make fact out of science fiction
"The future is already here, it's just not very evenly distributed," declared sci-fi genius William Gibson many moons ago. And nothing says the future quite like virtual reality, a technology that's frustratingly been on the cusp of breaking through to the present for years.
But the stars are aligning for a deluge of virtual-reality products early in the new year - backed by heavy hitters including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Sony, Samsung and HTC. Mark my words, at least one of these will be the star attraction at the 'Late Late Toy Show' next Christmas.
Mark Zuckerberg didn't pay $2bn last year to acquire VR firm Oculus just for the laughs - Facebook figures it will change the face of entertainment and social interaction. "Oculus's mission is to enable you to experience the impossible," said Zuck at the time.
Thanks to a slightly uneven distribution of the future, the Irish Independent this week got a preview from HTC of the newest generation of VR - in which you can walk around and manipulate objects in a virtual space by moving your body in the real world. Trust me, it's mind-blowing.
You may be familiar with conventional virtual-reality headsets - everyone from Enda Kenny to Joan Burton has been pictured wearing one, usually the Oculus Rift from Facebook, due out in about February. Impressive, yes, but the catch is that you must stay rooted to the spot.
The prototype of the HTC Vive (it rhymes with five) demonstrated this week changes everything. Two sensors in the corners of your room work in concert with the head-mounted visor to track your position. A trailing wire runs back to a computer, which generates the 360-degree scene in the headset - everything from an uncannily realistic underwater diving wreck to a zombie outbreak in a desert.
Two wand-like controllers act as proxies for your hands, enabling you to wield anything from a gun to a paintbrush, open a drawer or pull a switch.
But the intoxicating freedom of "standard" virtual reality is doubled by the simple virtue of being able to walk around the scene. In one demo, you're admiring the calm underwater view of a sunken wreck and suddenly a giant blue whale sidles up to the bow. You can recoil in fear or shuffle tentatively closer to look the beautiful creature in the eye.
VR is full of startling moments like these. Start-ups are working furiously to bring panoramic live-action footage of news, sports and music events. Hundreds of game companies are developing interactive entertainment.
Virtual reality's time is very near but it will cost you. At the low end, a cardboard-based visor from Google goes for just €10 - yet also requires a €600 smartphone. Sony's PlayStation VR product - expected about April - will probably run to €400 not including the necessary PS4.
HTC won't be drawn on Vive pricing but indications suggest €700 or more for the kit - plus about €1,000 for a powerful computer.
No one said the future would be cheap.