Virtual reality is finally for real. Facebook recently dropped a tidy $2 billion to purchase headset maker Oculus VR, an unexpected gambit that signals Silicon Valley’s love affair with so-called immersive technology. And true believers swear the latest round of devices will soon transform the way we consume entertainment, from videogames and movies to concerts and live sports. “We don’t see a lot of these sorts of changes happen very often. Think of the advent of synchronized sound in 1926, or Technicolor [in the ’30s], or computer animation with Toy Story in 1995,” says Eugene Chung, Oculus’ director of film and media. “We think it’s that revolutionary.”
But how, exactly, will this long-touted revolution play out in the short term? Consumers old enough to recall the great VR fizzle of the ’90s (remember Nintendo’s Virtual Boy?) will be forgiven for their skepticism. “It was way oversold,” says Jason Jerald of VR consulting firm NextGen Interactions. “Hollywood made some great movies about it and got people excited, and then when they tried the actual experience, it just didn’t hold up.” This time, though, things should be different; the tech actually works. Oculus’ Rift is a snazzy piece of hardware — a sleek, comfortable state-of-the-art headset with a high-definition screen that completely fills your field of vision. Look up or down, or even turn around, and whatever you see reacts seamlessly. And that’s just one of several high-profile consumer VR devices racing to be first out of the gate: Sony has a PS4 peripheral dubbed Project Morpheus, and companies like Sixense are working on VR joysticks and controllers.
The first consumer versions of VR will, not surprisingly, be videogame-based — and even those won’t hit for another year. But already there are dozens of existing titles that are being “ported,” or translated, for use with VR headsets, including bona fide blockbusters like Battlefield 3. (The Rift’s hardware is famously open-sourced, meaning third-party developers are able to experiment and work cooperatively to advance the technology.) In the eyes of the VR industry, however, repurposed content is not the goal. “[Ported games] aren’t what VR is about,” says Nate Mitchell, VP of product for Oculus. “Similar to how modern games ported to an iPhone don’t work well, the best games are the ones designed for the medium in mind. We’re working with content creators — whether they’re game developers, movie directors, or even musicians — to discover what the future looks like. We’re really just scratching the surface of what’s possible.”
In February, visual-tech company Condition One released an interactive trailer for a 3-D VR documentary for the Rift — fittingly about the future of VR — called Zero Point (see the trailer at reelhouse.org). And just last week another start-up, Jaunt, unveiled what it calls “cinematic VR,” which is 360-degree video shot using its home-brewed high-tech gadget, a futuristic-looking ball with an array of microphones and 16 cameras tucked inside.
At the high end, British production company Framestore, which just snagged an Oscar for the otherworldly special effects in Gravity, demo’d a Game of Thrones-themed VR extravaganza at this year’s SXSW festival, allowing viewers to clamber up the infamous Wall. The effect was amazingly multisensory — and a little bit stomach-churning — thanks to not only 360-degree imagery but also wind machines, temperature controls, and vibration boxes. Actor Kristian Nairn, who plays Hodor on GoT, offered an enthusiastic endorsement on Twitter: “[I] wasn’t ready for the awesome. I’m telling you if you are excited about it, [it’s] better than you hope!”
Such an over-the-top display also required monumental levels of computing power from an arsenal of servers, so clearly we won’t be experiencing such thrills in our living rooms anytime soon. (Alas, season 5 of GoT will not be in VR.) In the meantime, we’ll likely have to settle for smaller, more curated VR experiences — and industry experts say it could take a decade before we all have headsets on our coffee tables. Jerald insists that whether VR is an overnight success is almost irrelevant. The important thing is that the technology is finally living up to the hype, he says. “I’ve been dreaming of this for 15 years.”