Facebook just acquired Oculus VR, the company that makes the Oculus Rift virtual reality (VR) gaming headset for $US2 billion.
But it is not until you try an Oculus headset that you realise why this new platform for games is, obviously, worth every penny of the $US2 billion price tag.
It is one of those rare products where describing it in mere words doesn’t come anywhere near to realistically depicting how incredible the experience of wearing one is.
Two-dimensional photos and videos are a poor substitute, too.
It’s one of the most completely bizarre, wonderful, unique, laugh-out-loud, “holy cow!” video experiences I have ever had. I was blown away by this product when I tried it at CES, the big computer expo in Las Vegas earlier this year.
It’s still a prototype but the new Oculus Crystal Cove prototype features some impressive technical improvements over the last version. Basically, they have gotten rid of the slightly jerky way the landscape moves around as you turn your head, and they have added an increased level of “positional tracking” so that the game reacts when you lean into, or pull away from, an object.
The result is a level of virtual 3D reality that reacts so naturally to what the user does that you actually get motion sickness when you stop playing, because your body has been convinced that it was moving around.
Again, this sounds like a mere technicality until you see it for yourself — lean forward to look at a cockpit dashboard in the game, and the gauges and displays loom toward you with natural clarity just as they would in real life. It’s disconcertingly good — the internal 3D world moves as convincingly as the real one.
The context here is that video games bore me.
I’ve owned a PlayStation and a Wii, both of which had long careers as dust collectors in my living room. I am just not interested in sitting on the sofa for hours at a stretch, playing advanced versions of Space Invaders.
Yet within seconds of donning the new headset I knew this was a (non-cliched) game changer, in the sense that it will literally change games forever. Once the goggles were in place — and they fit over your glasses, if you wear them! — I was instantly inside the cockpit of a military space fighter, launching into a gloomy, asteroid-filled galaxy of hostile aliens and impossibly vast ships. (The game was Eve Valkyrie, see video below.)
But the game itself is actually the least interesting part of the experience. It’s the fact that when you look at your feet, you see a pair of feet at the pedals of a beat-up fighter ship. Turn around to look behind you and you can see the leather cushion on the back of your seat. Check out the ceiling. Look out the side windows. Whatever you want to do. (The level of detail is helped by a high-definition OLED screen display.)
The Crystal Cove version of the Oculus rift is currently only a prototype that game developers can buy and experiment with. There are about 50,000 development kits for the original headset out there. Neither are available at retail yet, and the number of top-quality games you can play on it is limited.
So gamers will have to wait.
I left the Oculus booth in Las Vegas completely convinced that it’s the future. Oculus games make Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty played on a TV look like Pong.
There was just one question in my head: Why does this company still exist? It should have been acquired by Microsoft or Sony or Nintendo or EA or Take Two or any of the other large gaming companies months ago.
The firm has taken about $US115 million in funding from investors like Andreessen Horowitz and backers on Kickstarter. That sum would imply a valuation in the billions.
One can only assume they have been saying “no” a lot.
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