Ever since Tron, we’ve been begging to get into the game. We finally can, thanks to a leap in virtual-reality technology. Pop on the Oculus Rift headset and you’re immersed in games, movies and more in stereoscopic 3-D sense-surrounding 1080p HD. The key is custom tracking technology that responds to your head movement, allowing you to look around the virtual world in real time without the latency (the time lag between moving-image updates) that plagued previous attempts at virtual reality. Driving games work particularly well, and horror simulator If a Tree Screams in the Forest is creepy enough to make you jump when you hear a scream or see blood spatter across the lenses. Game franchises Half-Life 2, Skyrim and BioShock all have Rift test versions.
First funded by a Kickstarter campaign and then purchased by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg for $2 billion, Oculus got big quickly—some say too quickly. Crescent Bay, the company’s fourth headset prototype, has a seven-inch screen, extra LEDs for 360-degree tracking and removable headphones. Beyond games, Rift and similar tools could have many other applications: Architects could use them to design massive skyscrapers, relaxation enthusiasts could escape with the SoundSelf and Guided Meditation apps, and doctors could practice intricate surgery. Naturally there’s talk of porn applications. Oculus is partnering with Samsung (for the less powerful Gear VR, which uses the Galaxy Note 4 as a screen), but competition from Sony’s Project Morpheus headset and other upstarts looms. Plus, a copyright-infringement lawsuit may delay Rift’s release; if it doesn’t, expect an under-$500 Oculus Rift to hit stores by fall.
Will the world buy it? The last big push for virtual reality, in the 1990s, was a bust, mainly because of dizziness, heavy headsets and rudimentary (read: bad) graphics. If today’s VR makers can lighten the headset and eliminate latency, the main cause of dizziness, virtual reality could become the new reality of entertainment. We want in.