Hear the words "virtual reality" and your mind is flooded with images of people in stonewashed jeans with big red boxes on their heads fumbling through a blurry mess of polygons. For a brief period in the 1990s, VR was the next big thing; but then it disappeared along with scrunchies, chain wallets and Pauly Shore. The technology was too cumbersome, too expensive, and too, well, shit.
But now it's 2015 and people are talking about virtual reality again. In July last year Facebook dropped a dizzying $2 billion on a company called Oculus, whose pioneering headset – the Oculus Rift – is the most convincing case yet for virtual reality becoming actual reality. You still have to strap a box to your head, but it's lightweight, relatively cheap, and the visual quality is on par with the current generation of consoles.
The instant you put the Rift on, you get it. A virtual world blinks to life in front of your eyes, and every movement of your head, no matter how subtle, is precisely mirrored. You can look at the sky, down at your feet, and even behind you. It's a bizarre sensation, and it genuinely fools your brain into thinking you're there. You can stand up, look around corners, hop up and down, sway from side to side, and it tracks it all.
Try one on for the first time and suddenly Zuckerberg's investment makes perfect sense. How can this not be the future of gaming? The future of everything? But as impressive as the Oculus Rift and other headsets like Sony's Project Morpheus are, the futurist's dream of convincing virtual reality you can use at home is still in its infancy. I've spent a worrying amount of time plugged into the Rift, and the more I use it, the clearer it becomes that it still has a long way to go.
How scary is 'Alien: Isolation' with Oculus Rift? (Contains strong language.)
When it works, and you're lost in the moment, it's incredible. Dogfights in Elite: Dangerous are like being in the thick of a Star Wars space battle. Being stalked by H.R. Giger's terrifying creature in Alien: Isolation is so tense it feels like it triggers some ancient, primal fear hard-coded into your DNA. On a virtual roller coaster you can feel your stomach lurch as you drop. And even just driving down a rain-soaked motorway in Euro Truck Simulator 2 is impressive because of the feeling of being there.
The problem is, use the thing for any longer than ten or 20 minutes and you start to feel like you might die. Turns out having a block of plastic lashed tightly to your skull isn't that comfortable. You start to feel hot, sweaty, and claustrophobic, and the foam cushion around your eyes becomes stifling. Sometimes you feel like you're going to hurl. The Rift's health and safety documentation describes this as "VR exposure", which is yet more proof that we are living in a harrowing cyberpunk dystopia.
It's fine for short demos, but most video games are things you'll want to sit down and play for a few hours at a time. If VR headsets are ever going to become a legitimate alternative to a TV or monitor, you need to be able to wear them comfortably for long periods of time. No one plays Skyrim in ten-minute bursts.
Then there's the narrow field of view. In your peripheral vision you can see black borders, which makes you feel like you're wearing a spacesuit. You do eventually forget about it, but every time your eye catches them, the illusion is shattered. But it is worth noting that the Rift I've been using, the DK2, is an early prototype built for developers. No release date for the one you'll be able to buy in shops has been set—or even hinted at—but it should, hopefully, iron a lot of these problems out. It only takes the slightest reminder that a VR experience isn't real to bring you crashing back to reality.
Games where you're locked in one position, like sitting in a vehicle, work best – especially with a peripheral like a flight stick or steering wheel. But it's when you have to use a gamepad or mouse and keyboard to move around that the disconnection between you and your in-game avatar becomes jarring. You're walking around in the game, but you're also aware that you're sitting in a chair outside of it. You'd think first-person shooters like Half-Life 2 would be great in VR, but the illusion of presence just isn't there. It doesn't help that when you look down you don't have any legs.
Surprisingly, traditional video games are actually among the least interesting experiences I've had in the Rift. An indie development scene is growing around the hardware, and it's here that I've found some of the most compelling uses of it.
An app called VR Cinema lets you import HD movie files from your computer and watch them in a virtual cinema, with a screen that actually feels massive. It's like having your own personal IMAX. People have also been recreating famous sets from TV and films that you can wander around, including the bridge of the USS Enterprise, The Wall from Game of Thrones, and even Jerry Seinfeld's apartment. Exploring somewhere you're used to seeing on a 2D screen in three-dimensions is deeply surreal.
I'm not entirely convinced by Oculus Rift as a gaming platform, and I don't think it'll be replacing your TV any time soon. But it's still really exciting tech, because not only does it work, but it's accessible too. The Oculus Rift dev kit costs about $300, it's portable, and you can plug it into any PC or Mac. If the retail unit is a similar price, and it's marketed right, I can see people actually having one in their home – and not just hardcore tech enthusiasts. The world wasn't ready for VR in the 90s. Is it ready now?