Digital Mountain

This year I was finally able to fulfill the childhood dream of mine, visiting E3. I wasting countless hours refining my skills in between professional gaming matches. That’s right, I was a pro-gamer! Sponsored by Bawls and fueled by Oreos. I have always been a gamer to be honest, although much less so in recent years. But games are not the reason I went to E3.

My only goal while at E3 was to get my hands on everything VR. Fortunately I was able to test the Oculus Rift, as well as Sony’s Project Morpheus and the experience has completely changed my view of the future and what place VR and Augmented Reality (AR) will have in it. I was so moved in fact, that I will be devoting all of my free time to working within it. So, what did I see that drove me to believe that everything is going to change?

My Experience

My first and most immersive experience was playing Battlezone on Sony’s Morpheus. Once the headset was comfortably in place and adjusted to be snug on my face, I was loaded into my virtual tank cockpit. I started the game getting acquainted with my tank and it’s controls while looking around my surroundings. I was amazed by the detail of the cockpit. It had an array of blinking screens with my tank’s stats, switches and keyboards galore. There was one screen in my tank that was difficult for me to see, although the screen clearly displayed a stream of text. I asked if my headset was not adjusted properly and the Sony Representative instructed me to lean in and take a closer look. Following instruction, I leaned forward and was blown away at how immersive that single action made the entire experience. I was so immersed in fact, that I reached out to type on the keyboard without even thinking about it and almost dropped the controller in my hands. “Careful, it’s not a real keyboard” my attendant reminded me.

Moving on to the Rift… My money is on the Oculus Rift, and it’s future iterations winning the VR battle. Firstly the device is beautiful, almost at an Apple level quality of hardware design. It is also incredibly light, much more so than the Morpheus. However, the most impressive feature were the screens. My god were they beautiful. I had known about the hardware upgrades since the DK2 version, and I had used their improved Crescent Bay device in the past, so I was looking for any dramatic changes. Rather than go into all of the details of what they have solved, I will just say they have solved them all, and the experience of using it was surreal and intuitive.

Regarding the software, the Rift launches into a virtual desktop of sorts, with a grid of games to choose from. Simply looking around the room would select from the menu. “I get to choose?!” I asked the attendant in shock. He laughed and when I asked which game was the best, he simply laughed again. Eventually, I chose to play Edge of Nowhere and it was a truly breathtaking experience. What I was most impressed by was the implementation of the camera. Essentially the game is in 3rd person with you as the camera. As you progressed, the camera (you) would continually adjust its position in the world for a better or more cinematic view. The fun part is that you are free to look around as this camera, often glimpsing things in the world that hint at future encounters or easter eggs. At one point, you are walking across a rickety old rope bridge and as a one of it’s planks falls from under your feet, your view is shifted to stare down into the abyss you are about to plummet into. Truly an amazing game, although I would call it more of an interactive experience than a game.

Back to the Rift’s hardware, this is not a device made for hardcore gamers like the Morpheus or Vive, it’s something that targets everyone. Sure, there is a dramatic barrier to entry if you do not already own a PC capable of meeting their massive minimum specs, but this will become much less of an issue in the coming years as costs drop dramatically. It is also covered in a matte fabric to hide the unsightly plastic frame and the LED constellation used for position tracking. This leaves a beautiful and unintimidating device that people are going to be compelled to use. Looking back at the Google Glass and how much of a public stigma was created around it, you begin to realize the impact that removing this stigma will have.

All Aboard!

Now that I’m convinced of VR’s potential, let’s examine who else is. John Carmack, the creator of Doom (and a God to many gamers) has left ID Software, the company he founded to join Oculus as CTO. Of course, many other prominent industry leaders have joined Oculus as well, but I see him as the canary in the coal mine. Perhaps the most important on the list is Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, which purchased Oculus in March for $2 billion. Not too bad of a value considering they have yet to even launch a consumer product. So why pay $2b for Oculus? Here is an excerpt from Zuckerberg’s statement on his mission for VR:

“This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”
- Mark Zuckerberg

Zuckerberg’s comments conjure visions of touring the world with a group of friends, or communicating in an open forum with world leaders. However, I feel that there is much more than this that needs to happen for mass adoption. What I envision as the event that will bring VR to critical mass is what I call the “Phone call threshold.” In other words, once I can sit in my room in Seattle, call my mother in Utah and have a face to face conversation with her as if she were in the room with me, the true value of VR will reveal itself. Really, who wouldn’t go buy as Oculus for each member of their family, just to have this experience? My family sure would and countless others would as well. This, of course, is all assuming they can get the unit affordable, intuitive, and easy to use.

Why I Am Excited (& You Should Be Too)

If the story above was not enough, here are a few personal examples of what I plan to do or experiment with in VR (sfw). We are all aware of the downside of living in a big city and with it, small apartments. Having moved from Rural America not even two years ago, I have yet to adjust. While thinking of ways to counter this, I thought of how nice it is that I may not need to purchase a television. In fact, in VR I could have a TV bigger than my apartment… wait. I could go anywhere! I dreamt of sitting on the beach, walking (resting) through beautifully made homes, or even lying in a field of grass, staring up at the clouds. Granted all of this may not be fully immersive and actually work as effective therapy, but a lot can happen in a few years time. In that time VR and AR are going to start to cross paths, which brings even more potential to the technology and will eventually permeate through all aspects of our life. Imagine visiting another country with all signs translated, as well as the spoken language. Updates on the world around you and integration with Biometrics (you should drink more water, turn left to stop at a Gas Station). But enough future talk, let’s get back to today.

Another exciting thing about VR is that it is truly uncharted territory… a virtual wild west. It conjures potential similar to the App Store boom, which was only released in 2008 and look how far we have come. VR is an environment where nobody knows how to create media and experiences for. Early experiments in 3D video simply had the video feed take up the entire visible frame. However, this was not an enjoyable experience and only once they modeled an actual theater (or the moon) with seats and all that you would watch the movie in, did they find a pleasant way to watch 3D movies in VR and now even ex-Pixar creators are involved and experimenting with film and VR. If nobody (even Pixar alums) can figure out how to best make experiences for VR, then we are all on the same playing field, which has not happened in a very, very long time. Indies and goliaths are all going to face the same issues and the indies may very well be the ones who succeed, very exciting.

Beyond media, we are also beginning to see the desktop metaphor revisited in a very real way. AR technologies like Leap Motion are working in tandem with the Rift to provide completely new ways of interacting with your PC. Straight out of Minority Report, this demo showcasing both technologies integrated begins to show the potential of how disruptive VR will be to our known world. Best news of all, is that we all have a few years at minimum to figure all of this out before VR has a chance at going mainstream. That’s a few years to get your name out there with almost no competition, which brings me to my next topic.

I was fortunate enough to experience a small taste of the App store boom around 2012 and ever since, I have longed for the opportunity to take advantage of something similar again. Now armed with a brigade of hindsight, I tell you it is coming again. From the App Store we learned that if you get in early, make decent software, and don’t give up. You will have very good odds of finding success. As I mentioned earlier, indies and goliaths are also in the same boat. General consumers are no longer aware of the difference between an indie and a larger company. Instead they are only aware of the quality, reviews and ranking in the store. All of which can be achieved as an individual or a company of thousands with the same chance of success. In fact, Indie software and games have become so popular in recent years, they may be in more demand than blockbuster titles. All of this will take work of course, but this ground has a high chance of panning out.

In Conclusion

From my experiences with the technology, I am confident that VR will succeed, most likely with Oculus leading the revolution. It may take a while for the technology to branch out of video games. However, I believe that VR is not the introduction of new technology, but the beginning of a revolution in how we experience the world and what we get from it. VR is going to change everything, just like the printing press, which liberated the spoken word. Just like film and television, which liberated text. VR will liberate our existing mediums and will be no less revolutionary than the introduction of the Printing Press or Film, and I can’t wait!