January 9, 2014 | 2
A couple days ago I found myself sitting in a digital cave with an enormous fire-eating hell-demon. Naturally, I was at the annual Consumer Electronics Show. I had just strapped a black box of brain-scrambling equipment to my face. I looked up and saw a cavern ceiling high above me. I peered over my shoulder and learned that I was sitting in a giant throne of stone. Then I turned to the towering Virtual Satan sitting across from me, Seventh Seal-style, and thought: Please don’t tell me I have to fight this thing.
I was getting a taste of the machine that gamers and virtual-reality buffs insist will soon transform entertainment—the Oculus Rift, now in second-generation prototype form. Among gamers, the Oculus story has already become legend. Short version: In 2012, a young engineer named Palmer Luckey built a prototype head-mounted virtual reality device that was so impressive that it quickly began attracting big backers. A Kickstarter campaign intended to raise $250,000 raked in ten times that amount. Before long, Marc Andreessen’s venture-capital firm invested $75 million in the company and Doom-creator John Carmack joined Oculus VR as chief technology officer. By now, the company has dispatched some 50,000 Oculus Rift developer kits to game engineers around the world.
The prototype I was using was called Crystal Cove, and it had a couple of big improvements over the previous version. The first is an external camera that tracked the motion of my upper body, making it possible to lean and turn and crane my neck and have my field of vision adjust naturally. The second is a low-persistence feature that strategically dims text and other features to prevent blurring—the digital equivalent of getting the spins. One of the biggest criticisms I had heard of the first-generation Oculus prototype is that the blurring effect was giving people motion sickness. I’m prone to motion sickness, and I’m happy to report that my stomach remained perfectly throughout my demo.
I’ve grown to hate the term “immersive” when used to describe any experience other than, say, scuba diving, but here it is justified. The great virtue of Oculus is that it allows you to fully step into an artificial world. Which brings me back to the cave.
Turns out old Virtual Satan just wanted to watch as I torched and bombarded the tiny goblins marching through the miniature maze sitting between us. Pressing buttons on the X-Box controller in my hands, I fired various weapons mounted in the maze walls. When I leaned in for a closer look at my targets, the whole thing appeared to come closer, just as it would in real life. I took some time to study the rivers of lava flowing through the maze. Flaming balls of magma periodically rocketed into the air, and I couldn’t help but reach down and try to grab them.
The second demo I tried, a space-ship dogfighting game called Eve Valkyrie, was even more compelling. As soon as the Oculus guys started the game, I found myself sitting in a starfighter cockpit. I looked down at my arms and legs and discovered that I was wearing an Ironman-like space suit. Soon I was piloting my ship among asteroids, chasing enemies and vaporizing them with guided missiles I aimed by directing my gaze at the target. The experience was pleasantly disorienting, like watching the movie Gravity. Actually, let me amend that—the game was pretty incredible.
As cool as Crystal Cove is, the Oculus people don’t pretend that it is ready for the market. The conventional wisdom in seems to be that Oculus will release a consumer product either late this year or early next, and that it will cost around $300, but Oculus won’t make any firm predictions. That’s smart, because some issues still need sorted out. One is the “screen door” effect. Because of low pixel fill, the 1080p OLED display inside the Crystal Cove prototype delivers fairly grainy graphics. If you strap on today’s Oculus prototype expecting to enter a Matrix-like world indistinguishable from reality, you will probably be disappointed.
The reason I emphasize that Oculus is a work in progress is not to malign it; I suspect the device will eventually be just as transformative as its most enthusiastic backers claim. It’s because some of the coverage of Oculus is so breathless as to be misleading. Consumer virtual reality is not quite there. But my Crystal Cove demo convinced me that it is very close indeed.