Why the Oculus Rift is going to be a serious game-changer
Ian Morris is totally overwhelmed by a virtual rollercoaster ride – in his friend's living room
Imagine yourself leaping from a plane thousands of feet in the sky or riding the fastest, tallest rollercoaster you've ever seen or exploring strange and exotic terrains halfway around the globe all without leaving the comfort and safety of your own home. It sounds impossible, right? Wrong.
The world of science fiction has teased its audiences with these notions for a long time with movies like The Lawnmower Man and The Matrix – and of course Star Trek, which featured regular visits to the "holodeck" in which holographic worlds could be created and visited allowing the crew to play games, practise hobbies and even be a part of their favourite book or film. But entering credible virtual worlds was only ever a fantasy.
Early attempts at creating virtual experiences came up short. I can remember being in an arcade when I was about 10 and playing a virtual reality game where you put this headgear over your eyes and carried a gun to shoot at bad guys. I don't know whether it was the terrible special effects, the fact that you could see the edges of the screen in your peripheries or the extremely slow reaction time of the game, or maybe all three, but it felt more like I was sitting a millimetre away from a big-screen TV as opposed to entering a virtual world. Also, when I'd finished I felt incredibly unwell.
As it turns out, nausea was a big issue with all attempted virtual reality products in the past and the cause was pretty simple. Anyone out there who has ever gone running on a treadmill might recall that, before they got used to it, they felt dizzy and disorientated when they stopped. Your brain gets confused because it knows you're running forward but the scenery isn't changing. With virtual reality it's the same. If what you're seeing doesn't keep up with the physical movements of your head (due to computery reasons like slow refresh rates and other technical mumbo jumbo), you get motion sick.
Effective virtual reality has been the holy grail of escapism since the first vehicle simulators were introduced at the beginning of the 20th century, but it's finally been found. Like most amazing technological breakthroughs these days, its 'discoverer' is a 21-year-old with messy hair and casual clothes who spends most of his time either barefoot or wearing sandals. His name is Palmer Luckey and he is the founder of Oculus VR.
"My foray into virtual reality was driven by a desire to enhance my gaming experience; to make my rig more than just a window to these worlds, to actually let me step inside them," he says. His invention, the Oculus Rift, is a piece of headgear that promises to change the gaming world forever.
I was introduced to the Oculus Rift by a tech-savvy friend of mine who'd bought a developer's kit from www.oculusvr.com, the company's official site. The developer's kit is like a prototype and was released to raise capital to further develop the technology, and to encourage developers to start producing games and other content that would be compatible with the device.
So sitting in my pal's living room, I put on the headgear and took a virtual rollercoaster ride. While the simulation wasn't in super-high definition and didn't look particularly beautiful, the feeling of immersion was intense. It was as though I was really there. As the rollercoaster shot around the track I could look around, up and down, even behind me. Feeling overwhelmed I had to remind myself that I could take the headgear off at any time if I needed to. The best part of course was when my virtual cart climbed slowly to the peak of the track. Just as it went over the edge, my 'friend' pushed the back of my chair forward, sending shockwaves of panic through me.
I was impressed. I have no doubt that this is next big thing, and not just for computer games – and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg agrees. The social media wunderkind purchased Oculus VR in March for $2bn.
He says, "Oculus's mission is to enable you to experience the impossible. Their technology opens up the possibility of completely new kinds of experiences. Gaming will be the first ... but this is just the start. We're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home... One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people."
The consumer version of Oculus Rift is expected in 2015.
"I'm obsessed with VR," Luckey says. "I spend every day pushing further and every night dreaming of where we are going. Even in my wildest dreams, I never imagined we'd come so far so fast."