As I take in the sights and sounds of Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) 2014, and the occasional suspicious smell, which I overhear someone claim is that of hot dogs, a deep feeling of suspense starts stirring within me. A merciless coup is forming poised to strike with undaunted ferocity. The harbinger, a very specific new trend with the capability of completely disrupting everything we think we know about gaming. No, more than that. Reality itself.
Virtual and augmented reality is about to mount a full-scale invasion on your sense of “the real.” It is about to change the way you consume interactive and passive content. An assault, amassing so much power and such allies, before it even lands upon the shores of our consumer collective consciousness, it is doing everything in its power to win the war before a single shot is fired.
At every recent tech convention, the absolutely longest line, by far, to experience the latest and greatest in entertainment and gaming is not at any long-established heavyweight veteran’s booth. It is, instead, snaking along the perimeter of a brand new, fresh-faced, hyper-ambitious startup’s booth. The banner reads, “Oculus.” And this phenomenon is repeated at every other booth showcasing their wares via a “generation one Oculus developer’s kit.”
Having taken the Oculus experience for a spin at CES a few months ago, I will not be waiting in the hour-plus line to demo a couple minutes of the developer’s latest generation Rift, sporting 1080p displays, much wider field of vision, and low-latency buttery goodness. I will say, at CES, it lived up to every shred of hype I had heard prior, even exceeding my unfairly high expectations. But here at GDC, what I was more taken in by was the very fact that I was staring at a booth filled with dozens of people jacked into Rift headsets, lost in a world separate from this one, truly immersed and interacting inside in a virtual sphere.
Then… the trumpets sounded, the heralds cried, and Sony announced Project Morpheus. Their own version of a totally immersive, HD, virtual reality headset, complete with infrared head-tracking, stylish blue LED-glowing trim, and tailor-made to be a bold companion peripheral to their own Playstation.
Competition! The ultimate catalyst and most important ingredient for mainstream market penetration.
With that announcement, Sony just legitimized Oculus’ crazy, Cinderella-story, vision of VR being the next big entertainment frontier. Oculus deserves more credit and mainstream attention, but a company like Sony, deserved or not for Morpheus in its current form, makes a bigger splash.
From Oculus’ Rift to Sony’s Morpheus. Google’s Glass to Gameface’s Android VR, Sulon’s AR, and Meta’s something-R, not to mention the countless motion capture peripherals, body suits, IR cameras, as well as the coming onslaught of next-generation smartwatches soon-to-be armed with Google’s new Wear platform, the seamless ability to merge your perception with your desired content will be coming in an a vast assortment of flavors. And, it is going to happen lightning fast. A leap from scarce tech convention oddity to mainstream critical mass ubiquity. Like going from Betamax cassette tapes straight to 4K HD streaming. The crazy thing is… it’s going to work!
As I stand in the line to try Sony’s Morpheus, I start talking with a tall, young, beardy-man from Winnipeg. This is Dylan. I notice he is holding a black lockbox. On one side the embossed text reads, “Oculus Development Kit.” I inquire about his work. I tell him about the article I’m writing. Twirling the long curls of his beardy-beard with his fingertips, a gleeful glimmer in his eyes, he offers, “How would you like to take a ride on my space rollercoaster, eh?” Branded into my brain since the age of 3, are the immortal words of most every American mom, “Never accept candy from strangers.” She, however, NEVER said anything about bearded Canadian peddlers of immersive HD virtual reality experiences. I give a resounding, “Yes.” He returns, “Great. All we need is a chair and a wall socket, eh?”
Dylan Fries is the director of Electric Monk Media, a media and software company who is full-steam ahead on development for VR. In Dylan’s words, “After my first twenty minutes with Oculus, I knew… this is the next dimension of entertainment.”
We huddle in a corner of the convention lobby and strap in. Scenes from the movie “Strange Days” are playing in my head. This is the future. But it’s not the future. This is happening. Now! For the next 15 minutes, Dylan is my Ralph-Fiennes-virtual-experience-dealer and I am his curious potential client, jacking into his briefcase rig to sample his inventory of realities different from my own.
In the beginning there was only darkness. Then there was light. I walk along the bottom of the ocean. Schools of fish swim around me. A big blue whale passes overhead, the sunlight rippling off the surface further above. A shark pays me no mind as he swims past me. A few keystrokes by Dylan and I am sitting on something akin to a ski lift in the middle of a kind of cement missile silo. A countdown plays in my ears. “3. 2. 1. Ignition.” Fire and smoke erupt around me. I look straight up. The ceiling opens and I launch up the cement shaft, rocketing into outer space. The brilliantly blue earth is below my dangling feet. A space station, satellites, and asteroid belts are in view. My virtual ski lift rockets like a rollercoaster through the cosmos, between orbiting celestial bodies, and through giant space station-like tunnels and corridors. These were Dylan’s worlds, demo realities he thought of and created specifically for the Oculus, and I was a guest in his mind. Who needs candy, Mom?!
Dylan and I end up discussing all the many different applications of VR that go way beyond gaming. I talk about the 360° live video cameras I saw at CES. Place one of those on the top of Everest or in Times Square, link to them from across the globe via your VR headset and take a look around in real time. He tells me about a trade school in Winnipeg already using Oculus to teach welding courses with virtual materials and environments.
There is something deeply visceral, something profoundly engaging and familiar about the simple act of standing inside a virtual world, wanting to see what’s to your right and NOT thinking to yourself, “Ok. Move your right thumb to press the right joystick… to the right.” Regardless of how quickly that happens in the minds of gamers, it is instantly noticeable when that no longer needs to take place, but you, instead, simply just turn your head.
When it was all over, I removed the headset and earphones and returned to my GDC lobby corner of really real reality. I exchanged business contact information with my momentary alternate universe tour guide and went on my way. The rest of the conference I toured and collected info on some of the other rebel outfits who are throwing all caution to the wind and are seizing the moment to define a whole new medium rather than just create more content for long established ones.
Human evolution itself, I suspect, ultimately will be the very reason why well-executed virtual reality and augmented reality will reach the heights of smashing blockbuster success once they are unleashed on the public. There is a fundamental truth to our nature to explore. Virtual and augmented reality devices are quickly blurring the lines between the worlds we perceive as real and the ones we immerse ourselves in for entertainment. This way lies explorations unlike we’ve known before or can barely imagine at this point. Judging by the ever growing lines surrounding companies pushing virtual and augmented reality devices and applications, I would say the smell of victory is in the air.
Or is it hot dogs?