A couple of weeks ago, I tried the latest prototype from Oculus, the virtual reality company Facebook bought for $US2 billion earlier this year.
Here’s a picture of what it looks like when you’re wearing it. The man wearing the device is my boss, Henry Blodget:
It’s very hard to describe what it’s like to use Oculus.
You put the headset on (over your glasses, if like me, you need t0), stick a pair of ear buds in your ears, and suddenly it feels as if you are in another place.
For example, you might find yourself standing against a rail at the top of a very tall building in a rainy city at night. Look over the rail below you, and cars are moving on the streets. You can walk around the platform, and the world changes relative to you just as it does in real life. If you are afraid of heights, your palms will start to sweat and you will become as uncomfortable as you would be in real life.
This happened to a colleague of mine. He was standing in the middle of a conference room with the Oculus headset on. As soon as Oculus put him atop that virtual tower, however, he literally shrank with fright and began to back way from the virtual rail.
Here’s a picture of Henry moving in close to a virtual object, hands up so he doesn’t bump into it:
Brandon Iribe, the CEO of Oculus, says the difference between the prototype I tried and earlier versions is that this one finally gives the user a real sense of “presence” in whichever virtual world you enter.
It really does feel like that.
When I was wearing the Oculus headset, I kept thinking about a 1995 movie from director James Cameron called “Strange Days.” It features a technology people can use to “jack in” or “wire-trip.” They put a bunch of wires on their head, and suddenly it feels as if they are in someone else’s body, someplace else.
Here’s a trailer for that movie:
Oculus almost feels as if you are “jacking in.” It’s not totally there because you can’t see your hands, the worlds are animated and not entirely photo-realistic, and you have no sense of touch.
Iribe says Oculus is working on two of those problems already. It’s going to put sensors on people’s hands and fingers to get them into the virtual experience. Yesterday, Oculus announced it bought a startup that will help this development.
Iribe also said people are working on cameras that will record enough of reality to reproduce it in virtual reality.
Trying the prototype, called Crescent Bay, gave me such a remarkable feeling that minutes after pulling the headset off I tweeted, “Just tried the newest version of Oculus. It’s going to change everything.”
What I meant was that, in the next decade or so, Oculus (or a similar product from another company) is going to change the following elements of human life.
Starting with the obvious stuff, and moving more abstract, Oculus will change:
Gaming. Plenty of immersive video games already exist in which you can move around entire cities and interact with hundreds of characters. The “Assassin’s Creed” and “Grand Theft Auto” series are best known for this. Right now, you have to consume these worlds through a flat screen. The leap into virtual reality is a short one.
Commerce. There’s already an Oculus program in which you can view your avatar in the mirror. Imagine dressing that avatar in clothes to see how they look before buying them. Or, instead of looking at pictures of a car’s interior online, actually getting into it to see if you like the trim you’ve selected.
Education. You can already take classes at Harvard online. Sitting at a virtual desk instead of watching a video on a monitor will be nice. But education will change more radically than that. Imagine being able to travel with a Harvard professor inside the human body to see how cancer cells grow in the blood stream.
Sports. The first way Oculus will change watching sports is in the creation of cameras that can take in 360-degree views and be placed courtside at NBA games. You’ll be able to put on an Oculus headset, pay some fee, and watch LeBron James from what feels like just feet away. Rumour has it, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is already geeked about that possibility. Eventually, it’s easy to imagine that Oculus cameras will become as wearable as Go Pros. Then you’ll be able to watch games from the referee’s perspective — or LeBron’s.
Narrative. The way we tell stories has never stopped evolving. First there were oral traditions. Then epic poems. Then novels. Then film. Then video games. Next, you’ll put on Oculus headsets. Sometimes, the narratives will be first-person stories, and it will feel as if you are seeing the world through a character’s eyes. Other times, you’ll float through worlds omnipresent, knowing characters’ thoughts. Whole industries will form around people who figure out how best to tell stories in the medium.
Sex. Oculus porn is going to be far more immersive than the static images people used to look at in magazines or even videos on the internet. Not everyone is going to be comfortable with how immersive.
Ageing. In the real world, knees give out and you can’t play tennis or basketball anymore. Imagine playing ball at 90. Also: how long can a human body live if all it needs to do is take input from VR? Could humans live for hundreds of years?
Sense of self. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, you will be able to put on a headset, a pair of gloves, and a body suit and feel as if you are a different person in a different place. Do that enough — substitute your five senses for virtual input enough times — and you may begin to shed aspects of your identity you once thought fixed: race, gender, age, nationality. On the bright side, people may become more empathetic and less tribal. On the negative side, people may abandon their flesh selves, leaving behind loved ones.