The future of tech is here, and it may not be as much fun as you think. To join in, you’ll need to strap a black, 1.5-pound mask to your face so you can have an out-of-body-like experience that might make you nauseous. There’s also the chance you’ll trip on the 13-foot-long cord that connects the device to a PC.
Once you put the headset on, it really can make you feel like you’re in a different place. You may be sitting in a chair at home, but through the headset — which is basically holding a computer screen inches from your eyes — you’ll think you’re standing beneath a Tyrannosaurus rex, climbing Mt. Everest or exploring the ruins of the nuclear disaster zone in Chernobyl
That’s the virtual-reality vision that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg will be delivering Monday, when the Oculus Rift headset officially launches. It’s also Zuckerberg’s big bet. He spent $2 billion in 2014 just to buy Oculus while its VR tech was still a prototype.
When the Rift goes on sale for $599 US (£499 or AU$649), most experiences will be video games, like the space shooter Eve: Valkyrie, the card game Dragon Front, and Job Simulator: The 2050 Archives, where robots have replaced all human workers.
But Zuckerberg, 31, has much grander visions. He sees a future where education, communication and entertainment take place inside virtual worlds that we all see through these headsets.
In that future, we won’t just take a video or photo. We’ll capture a moment using 360-degree cameras that record the people, things and action around us. Zuckerberg believes VR will allow us to relive precious moments — like, in his case, the first steps taken by his 4-month old daughter, Max — in a way we never could before.
“We’d be able to share that with our family and other close friends, and actually have them be there and feel it and see what it’s like,” Zuckerberg said at a conference last year.
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Sam Dolnick got his first taste of VR about a year ago when he downloaded Vrse, an app that plays 360-degree videos on an iPhone. You can also explore those videos by opening the app, plopping the phone into a headset and then peering through the eye holes. Turn your head, and the video pans around.
“It blew me away,” Dolnick said. “There’s something powerful about this place where you just look around.”
He showed his phone and Google Cardboard VR viewer to his colleagues in the newsroom at The New York Times, where he’s an associate editor.
By spring 2015, the paper was working on what would become a specialized VR app and NYT-branded version of Cardboard, which it sent out free to a million subscribers in November. That first weekend, more people downloaded the NYT VR app than did for the launch of any other app in the paper’s history, including its flagship reader for viewing content on phones and tablets.
“There were many people in the building who thought it was a stunt, a neat trick to do and then move on with our lives,” Dolnick said.
Now they think differently.
The NYT says its VR app has been downloaded more than half a million times so far. And while you can watch the videos without goggles, 75 percent of people have looked at them in Cardboard mode.
The Wall Street Journal added 360-degree videos to its flagship app in November. All told, the WSJ has produced eight videos and a VR-graphic presentation, including a front-row view of New York Fashion Week, a peep inside an Ikea carpet-making factory and a look at the business of raising chickens. The paper didn’t want to share usage stats but says it’s happy with reader response so far.
“It’s the most unique thing we have done,” said Jessica Yu, the WSJ’s global head of visuals. “There’s tons of potential.”
Other big companies are playing around with VR. In 14 of its Swedish outlets, McDonald’s offered 3,000 Happy Meal boxes kids could fold into a Cardboard-like device. Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB research center is publishing some of its experiments, including a 360-degree video on Facebook that puts viewers inside a vehicle speeding across Star Wars’ fictional desert planet of Jakku. That was watched more than 7 million times in the first few days after it was posted in September.
Lucasfilm also teamed up with Verizon and handed out Star Wars-themed Cardboard viewers last December ahead of the premiere of “Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.” And for content, the filmmaker also released a series of minute-long videos called “Jakku Spy” that set the stage before the movie.
“It was clear folks were willing to try something they never had before,” said John Gaeta, executive creative director of ILMxLAB.
Lucasfilm is now creating videos for high-end headsets like the Oculus Rift and is developing a game that may even let you wield Star Wars’ iconic lightsaber against your enemies.
“With each of these successive projects we get better,” said Vicki Beck, executive in charge of strategic planning at ILMxLAB.
And they’re off?
For all the questions about VR and its future, it’s worth remembering it’s taken decades just to get to this point. This technology’s long and winding road to store shelves has left behind companies like Jaron Lanier’s VPL Research, horror films like “The Lawnmower Man” and many disappointed enthusiasts.
But the tech industry, academics and entrepreneurs like Oculus inventor Palmer Luckey helped hold onto the dream that computers can be more than just a screen and a keyboard.
“There’s always been this inkling inside of people for VR,” said Paul Silverman, an analyst at market researcher and consultancy Frank N. Magid Associates. “When it hits them that it’s here and the real deal, there’s real potential.”
Monday’s Oculus release is the virtual equivalent of the starting gun. Beside the Rift, HTC has promised to deliver its Vive headset next month for $799, and Sony’s $399 PlayStation VR is set to debut in October. Like Oculus, these headsets will need a computer or video game console to power them.
The big question: Will VR be the biggest thing since the CD-ROM or a monumental bust like 3D TV? “There’s so much hype and money being thrown into this thing,” said Yoshio Osaki, president at market researcher IDG. He believes VR will take two to four years to develop, but warned there’s 30 percent chance it will fail.
Zuckerberg knows that and has signaled he’s willing to wait it out. “This is going to grow slowly,” he warned in September. “If you think about the arrival of computers or smartphones, the first units shipped did not ship tens of millions in their first year. But they proved an idea and made it real.”
However this plays out, many people making games and movies are convinced there’s real value in creating worlds we can immerse ourselves in. Reality 51, for example, brought laser scanners and high-end cameras to Chernobyl to put viewers in the middle of the city’s radioactive devastation.
“When I came to Chernobyl for the first time, I thought it was great, it was like the game ‘Fallout,'” said Creative Director Wojciech Pazdur. “Then I started to understand this is serious.”
Now Reality 51 is working with schools to use its upcoming Chernobyl VR project as an educational tool.
“Being there, visiting there, hearing the story, feeling like it’s something that matters — that’s what we want to show.”