Virtual reality and its viability as a consumer technology is a huge theme at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, a Los Angeles convention for the video game industry. Oculus is leading the charge with the Rift -- a ski goggle-like gadget that fits over your head to immerse you in whatever you're watching or, as the case may be, playing.
The technology drew so much buzz from the video game community that it was acquired by Facebook last year for $2 billion. But despite first announcing its project with a 2012 Kickstarter campaign that ultimately raised over $2 million, the company hasn't yet brought a consumer version of the product to market. It was only this month that it gave a launch window of early 2016, more than three years after the original target.
In the years since, competitors have taken note of a growing interest in virtual reality among gamers and the broader consumer electronics world. Several major companies have jumped onto the bandwagon in a big way. Microsoft last week announced a partnership with Oculus, saying it would make its Xbox One games compatible with the technology. Sony has, meanwhile, launched its own competing technology codenamed "Project Morpheus." HTC and the gaming company Valve have also partnered for their own headset, called the Vive.
The success of all of these efforts, even in the gaming world, still hinges on the simple question of whether normal people will want to use the technology. For one thing, many people see virtual reality as an isolating technology, since it requires users to surrender their eyes and ears to a virtual world. A lot of people also have problems with motion sickness, because it's simply hard for some brains to understand why two of their senses are in a different world than the other three.
But the promise is clear, and Oculus and other virtual reality headset makers see much broader applications for training, marketing and communications. Even Google has jumped into the mix, with Cardboard, a smartphone-powered virtual reality headset that's built from, well, cardboard. At its developers conference last month, the company touted the viewfinder-like gadget as a way to take students on field trips on the cheap -- to Europe, under the sea or back in time. Here at the game show, there are 27 companies on the floor showing off their takes on what virtual reality can look like in the game world as well as for other uses such as sports training or flight simulation.
Despite the proliferation of competitors, Oculus is still seen as a front-runner for the market when it finally jumps into the consumer fray next year. Attendees are abuzz over it, eager to hear the latest news or get their hands on one. Several smaller exhibitors who've scored Oculus headsets are touting the fact that they have them as a way to draw more attention to their booths. The company's own two-story booth at the Los Angeles Convention Center is drawing long lines of hopeful testers, many of whom have to be turned away. Others, like me, had to move quickly to pre-register using an Oculus app that let us make an appointment. Availability filled up within hours.
Truth be told, the Oculus Rift headset left me nauseated. But it wasn't because of motion-sickness problems.
Once in the demo, there are a variety of games to try, including a hockey simulator and a spaceship adventure set in the world of the popular series "Eve." For my demo, I chose "Edge of Nowhere," a simple runner from Insomniac Games that makes players leap from ledge to ledge on an icy mountaintop -- sometimes while fleeing black, tentacled things that want to eat you.
I chose it because I'm scared of heights and wanted to test how well the headset could trick me. Once the headset was in place -- "hold them like binoculars and place it on like a baseball cap," I was told -- we flipped the earphones down and I was completely immersed.
The instinct while playing is not to look down and not to look behind you. But you can, of course, do both while playing with the Rift -- and the first sheer cliff drop triggered my vertigo as if I were standing on a real suspension bridge. My legs tensed. My head spun. I broke out in a cold sweat.
It was awesome.
Things got even better when I found myself in a cave with nothing but a small circle of torchlight to see by. (Or maybe things got worse. Depends on how you look at it). It's hard to describe how it felt. I've played horror games that have scared me silly before, but even when you're wrapped up in something like "Silent Hill," you can look at your buddy, at your feet or just out the window to remind you you're not actually in the game. With "Edge of Nowhere," I felt completely trapped -- in the best way possible.
It was a little jarring to have my sight so convinced by the scenery but to have to still control my player with the Xbox controller that will come packaged with every unit that ships next year. (There's still no price for the headset). For example, I wanted to wave the torch around to see where I was going, but couldn't given the limitations of the game. I didn't get to try the Oculus Touch controller, which will be able to read the position of your hands while you play -- something that should make the immersion even more real. Still, the demo left me weak in the knees, even after I was welcomed back to the real world by the employee standing by.
It's still hard to tell exactly how VR will manifest itself in the gaming world and beyond. But Oculus has definitely proved at E3 this week that it can offer new, stunning game experiences that trick you completely.