VR is a new technology that already seems rather old-fashioned.
We’ve had VR headsets for years, which never seem to take off. There have been a bunch of virtual worlds too. I read an essay about Second Life recently— remember that? — which is still limping on.
And yet, a few days ago, I visited the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, where I was given a demo of their Oculus Rift system. I can rarely remember a moment of greater clarity, as in: oh, this is what the future is going to be like. VR is going to be huge.
Before walking into a small, dark room in Facebook’s building 18, I didn’t know much about Oculus, beyond that fact that Mark Zuckerberg bought it for around $2bn a few years back.
Inside the room, a charming guide called Patrick handed me exactly the kind of bulky VR headset you’d imagine, along with a pair of sensory controllers, one for each hand. I put the headset on.
And wham! The room disappears and suddenly I’m standing inside a full, imerserve 3D world.
Over the next half hour I flew over a virtual globe, finding our home in Singapore, as well as the place I’d stayed in New York the week before. I stood inside a hall in a virtual museum and watched a T-Rex thud towards me, ducking involuntarily as it ran over my head.
“You don’t suffer from vertigo?,” Patrick asked at one point. “No, no, my wife does, but not me.” And, whoosh, I was standing on a ledge on the edge of a skyscraper looking down over a kind of futuristic Blade Runner city scape, complete with floating barrage balloons and flying cars.
It’s hard to describe how visceral that ledge experience felt, looking down on pedestrians one hundred floors below. My legs went wobbly and my pulse quickened. I jumped back instinctively from the ledge. It was genuinely terrifying. (You can see a video of my “HOLY COW
!” reaction here.)
This is not to get carried away. Apparently Oculus works much better in the demo than the versions you can buy in shops, because it needs such powerful computers.
There were also bits that weren’t perfect. I instinctively tried to reach out to stroke the nose of the friendlier dinosaurs in another bit of the demo, which it doesn’t let you do. You also can’t walk around much.
My guess is that future use cases are not going to involve spending hours in weird virtual worlds.
But having tried it, I now find it hard to believe that our kids will book hotels without taking a virtual walk through. Or pick a holiday without going for a tour, as I did during the demo my taking a boat ride through a village in Myanmar.
Much the same will be true for watching live sports or attending work meetings with distant colleagues, or catching up with groups of friends.
Having seen this it seems perfectly clear to me that VR is going to be a big part in all of our futures. Thanks for the tour, Patrick!
You can see a few videos of this here https://www.facebook.com/jamescrabtreewriter, which you are most welcome to “like” as well, if you, er, like.