For decades, virtual reality has failed to deliver on its great promise. But on March 28th, Oculus Rift, a breakthrough VR system, debuted – finally heralding the arrival of a technology seemingly pulled from a sci-fi future. On a recent spring morning, in a soundproof studio on the Menlo Park, California, campus of Facebook – just days before the $600 Rift's release – I'm testing out the Oculus headset in a mountain-climbing simulation created by Crytek, a team of artists and coders that has spent the past year meticulously scanning and re-creating vistas from the Alps to Halong Bay, Vietnam. The experience, which teleports me to a jagged cliff in a virtual world spanning 50 square miles, is so realistic that I can barely look down – when I do, my knees buckle and my palms sweat. Finally, my brain has to interrupt: Dude, you're not really here.
In the past, heavy headsets, chunky graphics and sluggish latency have hindered the suspension of disbelief in virtual reality. But now, in Oculus' dozens of "experiences," as the company dubs them, you can live out your guitar-god dreams in Rock Band VR, float weightless in deep outer space in Adrift or hack through Tron-like computer nodes in Darknet. In each of these, you're not just playing, you're transported.
Palmer Luckey, the Rift's 23-year-old visionary creator in flip-flops, is giving me an exclusive glimpse into the VR future at Facebook, which bought his startup in 2014 for $2 billion, landing Luckey on Forbes' list of America's richest entrepreneurs under 40. For Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Luckey and his crew are bringing the ultimate sci-fi fantasy to life. "Oculus' mission," Zuckerberg stated shortly after the purchase, "is to enable you to experience the impossible."
VR makes the impossible possible by tricking your eyes, and brain, into thinking you're someplace else. The Oculus headset combines motion-sensing hardware, positional tracking and Pixar-level graphics to let you interact with and explore simulated worlds. To crank up the experience of climbing, the developers used photogrammetry – a scanning process through which they capture real surfaces (like the jagged cracks of a limestone perch) into a virtual space.
While companies like The New York Times have been producing and distributing what they call virtual reality, seen with inexpensive Google Cardboard viewers, their technology is more like VR-lite: 360-degree videos that keep you stuck in a fixed position as you crane around. The Rift lets you watch these too, but also has the power to deliver a truer VR experience – essentially, putting you inside a video game. You move, look and play just as in real life, except the world around you is computer-simulated. "What gives you that next layer of amazingness in VR is that you're the one in control," says neuroscientist David Eagleman. "You can look left and look right, and your brain gets the feedback it expects."
But VR isn't just about games. Silicon Valley, Hollywood and the military are betting on its broader implications because, says Luckey, "they know it's the next major computing platform." And VR is only the beginning. With so-called "mixed reality" headsets, you can see computer-generated objects – say, a flock of virtual sea gulls – float in real space around you. Then there's augmented-reality glasses, transparent displays that let you see information like the name and occupation of a neighbor as she passes by. And with HTC, Sony and Microsoft also rolling out VR gear this year, competition is high. Goldman Sachs predicts all of this to become an $80 billion industry by 2025. As venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, co-creator of one of the first browsers, Netscape Navigator, said after his firm led an early investment of $75 million into Oculus, it "will redefine fundamental human experiences in areas like film, education, architecture and design."
VR aims to alter our lives in staggering ways. Instead of chatting with a friend on a webcam, you'll "teleport" into a shared simulation and interact as if you're, for example, walking down a re-creation of the same Brooklyn street together. Instead of watching Jurassic World in a theater, you'll look up at a dinosaur slobbering over you. The Virtual Reality Company, a movie studio with Steven Spielberg on its board of advisers, is creating what co-founder Guy Primus calls "one of the first great tent-pole cinematic experiences" for VR, expected to hit headsets this year. It will launch with Spielberg's new film Ready Player One, based on the novel of the same name by Ernie Cline, which describes a virtual world of pop-culture past called the OASIS. For the film, Cline reveals, "they're going to create the OASIS for real as an immersive, networked virtual reality that will exist as a real thing. People will go home from the movie and log in and experience it in virtual-reality goggles."
At the same time, concerns about how virtual reality may affect our brains are rising. Some researchers worry that the deeper we go into virtual worlds, the further we'll leave this one behind. "There is a very good chance that we will crave VR," says Sherry Turkle, a director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "But the promises that VR will enhance our humanity, increase our empathy, all of this, I am afraid are overblown." Yet the verdict is still out. "We as a scientific community just don't know," says Beau Cronin, a computational neuroscientist who studies VR. "The brain might adapt to this new environment in a long-term way. That's entirely plausible."
The long road to today's virtual reality is littered with clunky arcade games (Dactyl Nightmare) and goofy gear (Nintendo's Virtual Boy) that never delivered. "It always seemed like the technology is just around the corner," says Cline. "But then the 21st century came around and it still didn't exist."
Little did anyone know that a prodigy in his parents' garage in Long Beach, California, was going to make VR a reality. Palmer Luckey was home-schooled by his mother, Julie, and weaned as a gearhead by his car-salesman dad, Donald. Encouraged to explore his interests, Palmer became a gaming fanatic with a gift for invention. His engineering mishaps are nerd lore: the time he zapped a permanent blind spot onto his retina with a laser; the day he blasted himself across his garage on a Tesla coil. "I got shocked a lot," he once said. "Looking back, it's honestly a miracle I am not dead."
But the mad scientist was also an ambitious entrepreneur. Raising $36,000 from fixing iPhones, the 16-year-old built the ultimate gaming rig: a headset display that was perfect for VR. Luckey's genius was in realizing that much of the foundation for VR – such as powerful processors and motion-tracking software – was already in place. He just grabbed the parts he needed and hacked them into something new. Luckey ripped apart early off-the-shelf VR headsets, and fixed in alternate displays. Some left him physically sick – a problem caused by the lag between a person's head movements and what's displayed onscreen. Finally, with a mobile PC and a couple of magnifying lenses, he made a VR headset that was cheap, fast and worked.
"I was just screwing around," he says, sitting in Oculus' office. "People who tried it started saying, 'Hey, this is a lot better than anything else that is out there.'" Among them was John Carmack, co-creator of the seminal first-person shooters Doom and Quake. In 2012, he gave Luckey his big break by showing his invention at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, North America's largest video-game trade show, calling it "the best VR demo probably the world has ever seen." Within a month, Luckey raised more than $2 million on Kickstarter to co-found his company, Oculus, with three friends. He poached an Apple whiz, who refined the motion-tracking sensors and displays for better fidelity. By 2014, they hit the ultimate dot-com lottery: a $2 billion acquisition from Facebook.
Like Luckey, Zuckerberg sees VR as "a new communication platform," as he put it when he announced the buyout. In the social networking of the future, we will teleport into a virtual world together. "Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game," Zuckerberg stated, "studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home."
"Our visions were basically the same, in terms of what we wanted to build," Luckey says about Zuckerberg. "I am a gamer, but if you look at virtual reality and how it's been depicted in science fiction, it's not depicted as a gaming technology." According to the VR novels that line the cubicles here – William Gibson's Neuromancer, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, and Ready Player One – we will work, have sex and even die there. "It's depicted," Luckey goes on, "as a technology to create parallel digital universes."
All sorts of nongaming things are already happening in VR. A surgeon in England recently live-streamed the first operation in 360-degree video, which allows medical students to view it in their headsets as though they are seeing it with their own eyes. The Department of Defense has tested Virtual Iraq and Virtual Afghanistan to treat soldiers with PTSD, which allows vets to explore simulations of Middle East scenes in the company of a therapist. The site YouVisit lets anyone upload and share their VR experiences (programmed on a computer or shot with a 360 camera) – from tours of Dartmouth College to fashion shows in Moscow.
As Oculus co-founder and CEO Brendan Iribe, the natty 36-year-old businessman to Luckey's egghead genius, says of VR, games are just the beginning. "In a decade or two," he tells me, "there will be this time when more and more of your daily life is spent inside a pair of glasses. You can teleport to the office. You can teleport to London. You can teleport to the Mayan ruins."
With the deep pockets of Facebook at his disposal, Luckey spends all his time overseeing the VR factory, where T-shirted young men hunch at workstations, soldering goggles on Styrofoam heads. Unlike most antiseptic dot-coms, there's real industriousness here. The air smells metallic. A sign on a door reads do not enter. robot experimentation in progress.
Luckey, a college dropout, seems to relish the shop class he's made here. Like Zuckerberg, who popularized his Adidas slides, Luckey's default footwear are flip-flops. His office is dorm-room messy, with a Back to the Future poster on the wall. At lunch, he readily joins the line at the cafe, just another man-boy hankering for mac and cheese. "There are days when I do nothing but play games and test things all day long," he says.
Oculus' studio head, Jason Rubin, a veteran of the video-game industry and, at 46, twice his boss's age, says that rather than putting himself in charge, Luckey surrounds himself with biz guys so that he can focus on the big vision. "There aren't a lot of people his age that have the ability to look at themselves and say, 'Actually, I'm not a Mark Zuckerberg. What I am is a far more creative but nonmanagerial person,'" Rubin says, adding it's all the better for the company. "I live in today, and he lives in the future."
Right now, Luckey can't get me back into the future fast enough. Not long after my arrival, he turns to his aide and tells her, "Let's put him into Bullet Train." I don my headset and am immediately riding in an empty subway car through a dark, flashing tunnel. As the train screeches to a halt, an army of cyborgs storms at me, guns blazing. I hear bullets whizzing by my ears. A good game of old-fashioned Call of Duty can get my heart racing, but inside here it's different – I can't escape.
But the thrills come at a price. After I log out and tell Luckey I'm feeling "wavy," he nods sympathetically. Cybersickness is a real phenomenon caused by the fact that your inner ears don't feel the motion your eyes are perceiving. Cronin says fixing this is "going to remain a challenge for quite some time." Luckey admits, "VR isn't perfect right now." Despite Luckey's achievement, Oculus and other VR companies are still working to improve the lag between your movements in the headset and what your eyes see – which will further cut down on the queasy feeling. Plus, Luckey says, the more you jack in, the better you feel. "People who use VR more get acclimated a lot easier," he says.
So what's to keep Oculus from going the way of Google Glass? One possibility that no one here wants to talk about: porn. There's a long track record of adult entertainment fueling demand for new technology, and VR is no different. Pornographers, like all game programmers, are free to create content for VR devices, and, as Todd Glider – CEO of BaDoink, a VR-porn production company – puts it, the industry's goal is "real telepresence," engaging your whole body. BaDoink is working with Kiiroo, developers whose "teledildonic" vibrators and orifices pulse and pump along with the action onscreen. Eventually, we may be having virtual sex with one another via dolls, devices and headsets – and the industry is expected to grow to $1 billion by 2020. "I always say Luckey ought to pay us a referral fee for every sale of Oculus," Glider says.
In March, when the Rift came out, reviews were mixed. Oculus launched without the wireless Touch controllers that let you manipulate objects, and an "unexpected component shortage" delayed shipment of some Rifts until August. By comparison, the HTC Vive shipped with wireless handsets and also "room scale" VR, which allows you to roam as you, say, dodge zombies. Yet Luckey is dismissive of doubters. "I don't care if people believe in using the product that we have right now today," he says. "It's not the one that billions of people are going to use." In other words, Facebook has the fortune and reach to make the long bet on VR – which could leave others behind.
Luckey says the longest he's spent in the Rift is "about 16 hours." He pauses. "To be clear, I had bathroom breaks and took breaks to eat." Dr. Frank Steinicke, a professor at the University of Hamburg, spent 24 hours in Oculus VR to study its effects. Besides dried-out eyes and nausea, he experienced strong moments of presence – in one case, feeling colder when his virtual sun went down. "We should be concerned about what VR is doing to us and what it could be doing to the brain," he says, "and if we wear for long-term, will we lose the ability to communicate in the real world?"
Then again, every new technology provokes skepticism. Luckey is unequivocal about where he'd rather inhabit. "The more time you spend in VR, the grayer the real world gets," he says. "In VR, you don't have any rules. That's a pretty cool place to be."
So would he want to remain there forever? Luckey falls silent, as if he's toggling back into the future, letting me fade into gray. "If the VR is indistinguishable from real life," he replies, "yeah, very possibly."