Virtual reality (VR)—remember that?—brings back memories of 90s cyberpunk and Lawnmower Man; of cumbersome headsets that dangled the carrot of total immersion in a new world, but ended up getting you to fork out your easy-earned pocket money for some low-polygon graphics where you couldn’t really tell what was going on. As we moved into the 2000s, it seemed to fizzle out and augmented reality became the thing, but now it seems VR’s back with Oculus Rift.
Oculus Rift is a Kickstarter project for a VR headset that’s promising high-res visuals and a wide depth of field, all for an affordable price. It launched on Wednesday and was aiming for $250,000 in 30 days and is now sitting atop a pile of $1,063,951 after having achieved its target in four hours. It can now join the likes of Kickstarter success stories that include Double Fine Adventure and the open source gaming system Ouya in the “SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY!” million dollar league of Kickstarter projects.
And it comes surrounded by a massive amount of hype—everyone from gaming dons like John Carmack and Valve’s Gabe Newell and Michael Abrash to the average Joe is offering up praise for the project. A quick glance at the Twitter stream for the phrase “Oculus” and you’ll find the following:
I should make it clear that I have no direct ties with Oculus; I endorse it is a wonderful advance in VR tech, but I’m not “backing it”.
— John Carmack (@ID_AA_Carmack) August 1, 2012
“Rift could be the closest we’ve come to Star Trek’s holodeck.” … Oh wow, these look amazing!! kck.st/NU6QRo
— Cheryl Rowell (@CorporalKitty) August 3, 2012
Get behind this one, people, VR rules. “Oculus — Kickstarter” kickstarter.com/projects/15233…
— Cliff Bleszinski (@therealcliffyb) August 1, 2012
— Zach Gage (@helvetica) August 1, 2012
So could this be VR making a comeback? Will Oculus Rift finally bring the virtual promised land of consumer VR that we’ve been waiting 20 years for? Before we welcome in this new savior, let’s take a look at why VR failed back in the 90s. Back then, when VR was at its zenith with regards to its popularity, the key things that stopped it from going mainstream were the technology wasn’t up to it and the headsets looked a bit ridiculous.
The screen resolution for each eye was way too low and the width of the field of vision made for unconvincing tracking—so disbelief couldn’t be suspended when you moved your head and the graphics didn’t come with you. Along with this, the hardware was bulky and unattractive and people were to vain to wear cumbersome head displays that made them look like a cyborg.
So have times changed? People seem to want to believe that this is THE ONE and technology has certainly improved over the years. But a healthy dose of skepticism is always good to maintain, so here’s why we’re hesitant to believe the hype:
· At the moment, while they’ve said the developer’s version will be out by the end of the year, there’s no release date yet for the consumer version. Until there is, this whole project could just fizzle out once the hype’s died down.
· For Oculus Rift to truly take off as a new piece of tech, it needs to not only ignite the development and gaming community’s imaginations, but also the average person.
· The Oculus Rift team say they have 640×800 resolution in each eye and improved tracking, but until we get to see it for ourselves, we won’t know if it’s enough to convince us that we’re truly immersed in a virtual world.
· With people already baulking at Google’s Project Glass because it might make them look ridiculous, how will they feel about a headset that covers half their face?
· With so many new technologies battling for the public’s attention: 3D printing, AR, and now this—will it all be too much?
So, now we’ll just have to wait and see whether this piece of hardware will be the one that sets the ball rolling for immersive gaming, or whether it’s just another false start.