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Opinion: Oculus Rift seals rift in look of virtual reality

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Zack Carpenter, 10, wears goggles as he tries out the Oculus Rift virtual environment setup on display, which gives a lifelike 360-degree view of a roller coaster ride, at The Grid, June 13 in Charlotte, N.C. Credit: Courtesy of MCT.

Zack Carpenter, 10, wears goggles as he tries out the Oculus Rift virtual environment setup on display, which gives a lifelike 360-degree view of a roller coaster ride, at The Grid, June 13 in Charlotte, N.C.
Credit: Courtesy of MCT.

It’s the stuff of science fiction: strap a screen over your eyes and you’re transported to another world.

Imaginative engineers have been reaching toward this phenomenon for a century now, inspired by the same ideas of futures that would have us driving floating cars and traveling through time. Unlike those dreams, however, virtual reality is now an actual reality.

The Oculus Rift — a head-mounted display created specifically for virtual reality video games — was funded on Kickstarter in 2012. Its Kickstarter page promised “an incredibly wide field of view, high resolution display and ultra-low latency head tracking.” That all adds up to virtual reality that will make you forget how awkward it is to strap a large pair of goggles to your face — an uncomfortable and unflattering scenario.

If you’ve used a virtual reality device before, you probably experienced the “uncanny valley,” a phenomenon where what you’re experiencing in the device looks sort of real, but just unreal enough to disturb you. New devices are fast and powerful enough to suspend your disbelief, or at least that’s their goal. PC Gamer reported that the newest Rift prototype, shown for the first time last weekend, was “the one we’ve been waiting for.”

I was fortunate enough to use an older model of the Rift at a convention earlier this year. I had never had any experiences with virtual reality before, at least memorable ones. I was expecting it to present me with an unsatisfying uncanny valley, as well as a stomachache from motion sickness.

The demo left me more bamboozled than critical. I was told I would be painting in 3-D, which sounded counter-intuitive because paintings are flat.

A man strapped the Rift to my head, pushing my glasses uncomfortably close to my face and leaving my hair matted for the rest of the day. But my discomfort was secondary to my interest. I groped blindly for a controller as my eyes adjusted.

The future materialized in front of me, a grassy field and a blue sky. After bumping into countless people at the convention that day, I had a sudden urge to lay down and bask in the artificial sunbeams. Then, the man helping me told me to press a button and move my head around.

I did as he said, and suddenly it seemed like I was painting with my nose. I moved forward and back to brush designs in three dimensions. I must have looked like a bobblehead as I tried to write my name in the sky, crudely approximating my already crude handwriting.

I only played for a few minutes, but I got it. This was the one I was waiting for, and I didn’t even know I was waiting for it. I played demos of real games under development on the Rift that day, but nothing struck me as much as that first experience with virtual reality.

Unfortunately, a consumer version of the Rift won’t be released until next year at the earliest. It will be costly at that and require a powerful computer. But maybe those inclined toward new technology will skip a new smartphone and pick it up instead next year. I’m pinching my pennies just thinking about where a Rift could take me.

Still, you can make a capable virtual reality display with an Android phone right now, as well as a pizza box and a few bucks at the hardware store. Google released Cardboard over the summer, a DIY answer to the Rift. By building your own mount out of cardboard, you will both be able to experience a budget virtual reality experience on your phone. You’ll look a little silly, since it means strapping cardboard to your face, but virtual reality is worth the awkwardness.

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