So Facebook bought Oculus and a wave of disenfranchised nerd anguish washed over the Internet. Oculus had sold out to the man, and the taint of Facebook was on everything and everyone associated. Idealists everywhere cried foul, as if strapping what looks like half a brick to your face made you one of the goddamn sex pistols.
Of course, given a little distance, a lot of people seem to think that the Oculus acquisition might not be such a bad thing after all. Myself included.
I played Dactyl Nightmare in the early 90s. You had to stand in a inside a waist high restraining ring that kept you from tumbling off of the raised platform. Seems that putting an enormous plastic and glass mushroom cap on your noggin blocking out two of your primary senses tends to make grown person wobble like a toddler. The game looked awful. It played like a slow motion version of lazer tag where all the laser guns are replaced with ice cream cones, and the ice cream cones are prone to jamming. It was about as fun as it sounds. I also tried a version of Duke Nukem 3D that used a pretty terrible headset and a strange fps controller that I haven’t seen since. The game experience was awful. It was also amazing and I wanted to play it again, immediately, and forever.
We nerds have been fully on board with virtual reality since, I don’t know, Neuromancer, Snow Crash, Tron, The Lawnmower Man, The Matrix, or countless other fictional examples before or since. Depending on how old you are, you can probably choose a cultural touchstone that introduced you to VR. You have probably been excited, and/or concerned about the prospect ever since. Regardless of what you think the effect of VR will be, fantastic, terrible, entertaining, addictive, or a passing fad, you know exactly what it looks like and how it works.
There have been a lot of head mounted displays through the years. They were often marketed as VR, but none of them passed the test. We all knew how VR had to feel if it was ever going to take off. Funny enough, it’s in the name. It has to feel real. Not ‘real’, as in a recreation of the actual world. ‘Real’ as in a convincing place that seems like it exists. If virtual reality as an experience wants to get anything above a D- grade, it needs to at the very least look and sound like you are in a place that you are not.
I tested out the Oculus Rift dev kit version 1 for about 10 minutes, and came away quite impressed. While this was not the matrix, or the holodeck, or whatever hyperbole marketing will drum up, it did give me a very convincing feeling of being in another place.
The screen was of obviously low quality, and the motion tracking was slightly unresponsive at times. These are the sort of issues that people prone to motion sickness will have a lot of trouble with. Most people reporting on the latest version of the development kit say that these issues are largely resolved. That seems in keeping with what Oculus has been saying about the development of the headset, so that is a very good sign. The Rift might actually be the first head mounted display to crack VR. When the product actually comes out, it may provide the very real feeling of being in a different place. The good news is that it probably won’t have to.
There are a few other head mounted display technologies popping up out of the R&D trenches. One from Sony. You can say what you want about Sony, but they have more experience with bringing head mounted displays to market than probably anyone else on earth. They held on to that particular niche product line much longer than was sensible. There is also the InfinitEye, which seems like the IMAX version of the Oculus Rift, bigger but not necessarily better. With a slightly different take on head mounted displays Avegant has the Glyph. The Glyph uses DLP chips to project the image directly into your eyeballs. Apparently this looks much more like a rectangular screen floating out in front of your eyes rather than offering an immersive experience. The display portion of this headset doubles as an ridiculously large headphone band. This will allow people on the plane to flip down their Glyph visor to watch Game of Thrones without exposing the people behind them to seven minutes of boobs per episode. For that reason alone, I suggest everyone refer to the “flip down the Glyph visor” move as the Dirty Geordi. You know he spent most of his time looking through the entire bridge crew’s uniforms with that thing.
So Facebook still bought Oculus. The plucky little guy sold out to the heartless behemoth right. What people sometimes forget is that money lends legitimacy. Right or wrong, that’s just how it goes. That's not just legitimacy for Oculus, it's legitimacy for the concept of VR. Even if Facebook bought Oculus just to shutter it in six months, they spent a lot of money for the little guy. It means that other big guys will be more willing to buy up the other little guys, or at the very least, toss some money into R&D. For all of us that have been waiting for VR goggles to become a real product since the 90s, 80s, or even 70s, we can now be sure that it will happen. Your long wait to jack in, sync up, punch deck, go cyber, or whatever will soon be over.
There are a few things that any headset developer will have to add if they want to go mass market with one these units, like some sort of passthrough camera that can let the wearer see and hear the world around them, and rock solid motion detection contained in the unit. Of course, there is one way VR displays won’t become a mainstream success. The games could still suck.