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.