I strapped an Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset to my face and was teleported to the Apollo 11 spacecraft’s cramped command module, circa July 1969, on my way to the moon. Dressed in a white NASA spacesuit, I blasted off with two other astronauts, peering through small windows as Earth shrank below us. My stomach dropped a bit as we landed on the moon’s surface, where I watched a computer-generated Neil Armstrong take his first steps, kicking up small clouds of dust and saying (via archived audio from the actual event) that it was even easier to move around than he expected while doing simulations back on Earth.
The fiery descent back to Earth was slightly nerve-racking, even though there was obviously no actual danger and my fellow astronauts were square-jawed, expressionless look-alikes who never looked my way. Knowing that it’s all virtual and no reality doesn’t stop Apollo 11 VR, which costs $14.99 through Oculus’s online store, from being thrilling, captivating, and emotional. And that’s why virtual reality, while it’s still a novelty, should not be shrugged off as something that’s unimportant or just for video games. You get to travel back in time and go to the moon. What other technology can so viscerally transport you this way?
Gaming is a big, obvious market for virtual reality, since gamers are willing to shell out for the latest software and hardware to support their habits. In this case, that means pricey headsets (Rift costs $599) that require powerful PCs (another $1,000 or so) to run them. Oculus, which is owned by Facebook, has long been hyping games as one of the things we’ll do in VR, and when Rift launched in late March, 30 games were included in its small but growing store—making this much larger than any other category.
But after spending weeks with the black, fabric-covered Rift headset, I can see there’s a lot more to it—and to virtual reality in general—than just playing games. These headsets make it easier to feel totally transported (even for just a short time) while learning about new worlds and watching films whose scenes change depending on where you’re looking. Today the number of impressive experiences is limited to a handful of games, films, and other apps that let you explore VR. But the good ones are so entrancing that the technology is sure to inspire a boom in content creation and experimentation.
Virtual field trips
In addition to traveling to the moon, you can use Rift to kayak down the Colorado River while checking out the Grand Canyon, tossing tiny pellets to lure passing fish. You can dive with sharks, sea turtles, and other creatures, watching exhalation bubbles seep from the spot where your face mask should be and feeling that prickly sense you get when you’re actually underwater, wondering if something is creeping up behind you.
Over the next three years, such virtual field trips will become a lot more common, says Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. His lab built one such experience, called The Crystal Reef, which lets you swim through areas of varying acidity in the ocean to explore the effects of carbon dioxide on underwater habitats. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, and Bailenson expects it to be available for Rift and HTC’s Vive headset in a few months.
One big question, though, is whether people will go on such excursions together—interacting with one another in the virtual world—or disappear from each other inside their own headsets. The idea that virtual reality could be a social rather than a solo experience is perhaps the biggest reason Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent $2 billion for Oculus back in 2014. At the time, Zuckerberg predicted that VR’s ability to make you feel “truly present” will let you “share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life.”
The existing social interactions within virtual reality are not really fun yet. You can, for instance, use a blocky avatar to talk with other people in VR on the social platform AltspaceVR, as long as those people happen to have a Vive, a Rift, or a Gear VR, which is made by Samsung and works with a smartphone. Mostly what I’ve done in AltspaceVR is approach other people’s avatars and comment on how weird it all felt.
But it’s not crazy to think that in the next few years we will use virtual reality for socializing or for some kinds of meetings. Oculus’s Toybox demo, which is not available publicly, gives a good sense of how this could work. Once you connect with a remote person who is also wearing a headset, you two can talk, toss around virtual objects, and play Ping-Pong. It’s far from amazing—aside from the fact that you can’t really feel any of these objects, you and your partner are each represented by a bald, blue, headset-wearing head and a pair of hands. But it does point the way to social interactions that are more compelling than talking on the phone or having a video chat. Jim Blascovich, director of the Research Center for Virtual Environments and Behavior at the University of California, Santa Barbara, predicts that since humans are naturally social, we will want to use virtual reality to find new ways of connecting.
Room for improvement
For virtual reality to be truly widespread and useful, however, it will need to get better on a number of fronts. The technology still makes some people feel nauseated. That tends to happen when the visuals being presented to your brain don’t match up with the motion your body is actually experiencing. Both hardware and software will have to improve to fix this, and content creators will have to avoid extreme virtual movements like barrel rolls. It might also be the case that VR is best suited for experiences not much longer than 20 minutes.
We also need better ways to control and interact with virtual reality than using traditional video-game controllers, as the Rift currently does. Because they’re not always intuitive, they spoil the illusion; even two-handed controllers like the ones that come with the Vive and the ones Oculus will roll out this year are still not great. Tracking head movements has come a long way, but more advanced systems that can reliably reproduce all kinds of body movements would be a boon to many apps and games. And many folks probably won’t be interested until the headsets are slimmed down further and can work untethered from bulky computers.
For now, don’t buy Oculus Rift or any other high-end VR headset unless you’re an early adopter who won’t be satisfied with anything but the best experience available. In addition to the Rift headset itself, you can’t run VR software well without a costly high-performance computer. If you’re mildly curious about the technology there are much thriftier options, such as Google Cardboard ($15 from Google; it works with a range of Android smartphones and iPhones) or Samsung’s Gear VR ($99.99; requires a high-end Samsung smartphone). In fact, there’s still not all that much you can do with Rift: as of early June, there were just over 70 games, apps, and such available from the Oculus Store.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss Rift and its ilk as techie gewgaws. There’s far too much we’ll be able to do with VR, and it’s just starting to take off.