September 21, 2013 - Iâ€™m old enough that Iâ€™ve had my heart broken by virtual
reality before. In 1992 I waited on line for forty-five minutes for a chance to playÂ Dactyl Nightmare. Iâ€™ll never have that time back. And the emotional scars that Nintendoâ€™s Virtual Boy
left on my heart have not healed.
But they feel a lot better now that Iâ€™ve seen Oculus Rift.
Thereâ€™s a lot of hype about this device, but I was keeping my expectations low. Iâ€™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 lastÂ year. Itâ€™s been endorsed by a lot of major figures in the gaming world, but I only got interested last month when John Carmackâ€”the industry legend who developed the technology behind Doom and Quake, and who is pretty much the definition of credibility in my bookâ€”signed on as CTO. What I saw was still a prototype, but itâ€™s well past the glue-gun phase: it looks like a pair of black plastic ski goggles with a big opaque lens. Itâ€™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 youâ€™ve got the headset on you realize that every time youâ€™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 didnâ€™t sink in fully till my native guideâ€”Oculus CEO Brendan Iribeâ€”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 frameâ€¦but there is no edge. Youâ€™re all the way in. The circle of the world is complete. The goggles followed my head movements smoothlyâ€”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 mĂˇs. It surrendered to the illusion completely.
Caveats? Itâ€™s disconcerting looking down and not seeing your own body in the game-world with youâ€”thereâ€™s a definite moment of dude whereâ€™s my torso. Iâ€™ve also heard reports of people getting nauseous or disoriented in Oculus Rift, but they may have been using earlier prototypes that werenâ€™t precise enough to pass your inner earâ€™s bullshit test. It may just be that Iâ€™m a good test subject for this kind of thing: Iâ€™m one of those people whose inner ears are easily fooled, and I have a stomach of ironâ€”I donâ€™t get motion sickness.
But those are just footnotes to what was an astoundingly compelling experience. Iâ€™m sold: VR is being cracked, and these are the guys who are doing it. Over the years Iâ€™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. Itâ€™s going to change the game.