Seeing (and Feeling) the Future of Virtual Reality With the Oculus Rift

SciFri tests out the cutting-edge virtual reality device at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

SciFri's Chau Tu testing out the Oculus Rift at the Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Joe Chen
SciFri’s Chau Tu testing out the Oculus Rift at the Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Joe Chen

I’m sitting in the small cockpit of a spaceship. All around, enemy planes are flying and firing their weapons at me. I dive from their lasers but also try to follow their speedy ships, holding them in my sightline long enough to lock in my targets and fire off with the push of a button. It’s a disorienting challenge. Everywhere I look—left, right, up, down—is seemingly infinite space…and an infinite number of enemies. I’m doomed.

Then I take off my headset, and I’m back in the real world—in this case, a busy lounge at the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier exhibition. I’m testing out the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality (VR) device that’s attracted lines and prompted excited conversations at the demo space. Four other participants near me also don headsets, immersed in their own alternate realities—from the “EVE: Valkyrie” universe I was playing in, to a Beck concert, to an interactive documentary on coding. They twist and turn around in their seats in order to “see” everything around them.

“Our goal with VR is achieving the sense of presence, where you feel as though as you are there in the space, not sitting in the New Frontier booth, [for example], with Oculus Rift on your head,” says Nate Mitchell, vice president of product at Oculus VR, which makes the device. “It really engages your subconscious in a way that’s impossible with any other medium.”

Oculus Rift became a reality thanks to a highly successful Kickstarter campaign that ended less than two years ago and raised nearly $2.5 million. At New Frontier, which highlights progressive technologies in filmmaking, the Rift was the interactive piece that curator Shari Frilot was most excited to present this year.

Virtual reality is poised for a comeback. In the ’90s, VR technology wasn’t advanced enough, says Mitchell. Recent developments in display, sensor, and render technology—primarily as a result of the mobile market—helped make the Rift practical and affordable. The result is a headset that mimics reality in a way unmatched by previous devices.

What also differentiates the Rift from early VR devices is that it’s designed for more than just gaming, says Joe Chen, product lead at Oculus VR. The Rift is, in essence, a console with a blank slate—creative content such as games and films must be created for it. “That’s one thing that separates [the Rift] from VR in the past,” says Chen. “[It’s] built for the sole purpose of putting you in that immersive environment—whether that’s a game, whether that’s an art experience, whether that’s a documentary. [The Rift is] trying to make you feel something that normally wouldn’t be possible.”

Oculus VR has sold more than 50,000 development kits so far, according to Mitchell, and at least 70,000 people have signed up for access to Oculus VR’s online development center, which provides coding materials and tutorials for developers to create content for the headset. Meanwhile, the company recently raised an additional $75 million, according to AllThingsD, and expects to release a consumer version of the hardware soon, to retail somewhere between $200-$400, Mitchell says. When that happens, you, too might get a thrill out of fighting alien spacecraft, or by attending a concert without leaving your home. Your reality is up to you.

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Chau Tu is an associate editor at Slate Plus. She was formerly Science Friday’s story producer/reporter.

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