I had the great pleasure of attending the Chicago Comic Con this year, and one of the highlights of the experience was a chance to demo the Oculus Rift headset. The demonstration was a preset chase which let me experience the audio and visual capabilities of this promising new technology.
The Oculus Rift is a daring new attempt at a technology most people have relegated to science fiction. What it aims to do is provide a true virtual reality experience, literally tricking your brain into thinking you are somewhere that you could not possibly be. The Oculus Rift has proven so successful as to make Facebook buy the company for $2 billion dollars. From what I got to experience, the Oculus Rift is not far off from reaching its virtual reality goal.
When it was my turn to sit down and try out the headset, I hadn’t really had much prior knowledge of the Rift. I had heard bits and pieces of course, but it wasn’t really on my radar. I sat down in the provided chair and strapped the headset on. Aside from the padding around the eyes not being perfectly form fitting, the rig sat comfortably on my head, surprisingly light and well balanced. I could obviously feel the weight of the device, but it didn’t make me strain my neck to keep my head level. The noise canceling headphones completed the transition, and I left the real world behind.
I started my trip off by flying toward an island surrounded by water. I quickly found myself following a pair of orange humanoid creatures with triangular heads and small trunks for noses, who were riding a motorcycle. It turns out, I would be taking the role of one of those creatures. The driver stopped to buy a hamburger while I waited in the sidecar. As my friend handed me the hamburger, a small bird swooped in and snatched it. Thus began our merry chase.
The whole course was predetermined, meaning I was just along for the ride. While the chase was going on however, I could look anywhere and the fantasy world existed. I could look down and see my arms and legs sitting in the sidecar. I could turn my head behind me and watch a barrel we knocked over keep rolling away. I could even look up as a giant bird lumbered right over us. The incredible thing was, as I moved my head, the images were continuous, just like the real world. There was no tearing or blurring of images at all.
The next thing I knew, the ride was over. As I took off the headset, I had to reflect on the experience. The closest thing I can compare it to is the virtual rides at an amusement park. They use the chair rig to simulate motion and make your body feel like what the eyes are seeing is real. The illusion ends if you look off screen. The Oculus Rift is a sort of negative of that experience. Here, the eyes are telling the body that what they are seeing is real. Where the illusion falters though is seeing yourself falling or jerking but not experiencing a matching sensation from the rest of your body.
Overall, this was the best virtual reality I have ever experienced. Being that most of my experiences with virtual reality were with the Virtual Boy back in the ’90s, that’s not saying much. The optics and sound are truly enveloping, and the fact that the technology can render an entire 3D world in the time it takes to turn your head is simply astounding. All that is missing is some form of physical feedback, like a rocking of my motorcycle side car, or something like the kick-back of a gun in a virtual shooting game.
This technology is also in its early stages though, so once it debuts and we begin getting bigger and more refined experiences, true virtual reality does seem within reach. I’m very excited about the Oculus Rift and look forward to seeing more about this breakthrough device.
If you are interested in a thorough and rather long history of the Oculus Rift, check out this article at wired.com.