Virtual reality has a come a long way since the ’90s, the heady days of Lawnmower Man and epic battles with evil triangles and squares. But with the arrival of the Oculus Rift headset, VR is poised to change the way we play, work, and learn. That may sound like hyperbole, but I assure you that it’s entirely justified.
The Oculus Rift is a consumer-focused virtual reality headset that made its start on Kickstarter in August 2013, where it asked for $250,000 but earned nearly $2.5 million in backing. Since then, it’s picked up loads more venture capital (about $91 million in total) to produce its mass-market product due sometime in 2014 at a targeted cost of about $300. It’s fair to say that it’s earned a few believers with deep pockets already.
I got to try out the Rift a few months ago. I didn’t have a choice in the demo I played, so I was stuck riding in a little yellow race car. I have always hated race car—they just seem like death pageantry. But it was that or nothing, so I settled into my seat and waited for the race to begin. And when it did, I turned my head and saw the world flying by. As I approached 120 mph, I experienced slight vertigo, a feeling of pulling in my chest. Leaning my head out of the side of my car and watching the wheels spin made my eyes reel, and I could almost feel the wind in my hair. With unrestricted field of view, I felt like I was there. I asked the Oculus Rift representative whether I could crash the car, half afraid, half hoping that she would say yes. The answer turned out to be no. Regardless, when the race was over, I was a believer in the future of virtual reality.
The prospects for video games are obviously very exciting, but what if I’d rappelled into an active volcano? What if I'd taken a trip to Mars?
This is the real promise of virtual reality: the rekindling of the human sense of adventure. Virtual reality makes possible explorations we never dared to embark upon. We can voyage to the bottom of the sea by way of an underwater drone with a 360-degree camera, palling around with gulper eels and anglerfish, along with all the other alien species we haven't discovered yet. The video feed could be open to everyone, so anyone with a Rift could explore the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
We could send out space probes and bring the vastness of the cosmos, a privilege usually given to a lucky few, to the masses. Imagine strapping into your virtual reality helmet and turning around to see the Earth growing smaller in the distance. Perhaps we could orbit the moons of Jupiter many years from now. This would inspire such wanderlust that could jump-start the U.S. space programs, whose ambitions we have apparently ceded to, oh, the rest of the world.
There’s exploration to do here in the mundane world, too. Surgery simulators are just a few years away, and medical students or even hobbyists (not murderers, one would hope) could poke and prod to their heart’s desire. In virtual reality, doctors can attempt new techniques, and failure won’t be followed by lawyers.
The Art Vandelays of the world can try their hand at architecture with principles of physics firmly in place and see just how sound their structures are. Minecraft has already signed on to be a Rift title, but that’s just one example of the exploratory sorts of games that will help children explore their creative sides in a principled way, certainly more so than shooting bears in Oregon Trail.
In less academic pursuits, cinema could be brought into the fourth dimension. 3-D is a cute gimmick, but The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in 3-D—due out in 2014—is not exactly pioneering cinema. Think instead about a Sherlock film in which you have 360-degree vision of the set. You’d have everything in your field of view as the great detective and might be able to solve the mystery before he does. And what self-respecting geek wouldn’t want to be in Middle-Earth? There are far more artsy applications, I’m sure, but I’m more of a Dumb and Dumber guy.
What the Oculus Rift is going to bring to the masses is the ability to do things because we can. “Impossible,” “unsafe,” or “ridiculous” will be the bywords of the lazy or the boring. There’s no reason not to jump off a cliff, so we’ll jump off cliffs. Gravity and physics say you can’t put a ride an ant Honey, I Shrunk the Kids–style, but who is going to listen to gravity and physics when you can ride an ant, preferably while wearing a loincloth and carrying an axe with heavy metal music in the background? How many times have you watched a nature documentary and wanted to kick a lion’s jerk face while he’s attacking a poor little dik-dik? Well, try it, and see what happens.
We can be much more than ridiculous than that. There’s nothing stopping us from becoming elephants, feeling our own immensity and weight, and seeing how hard it is to hide from a poacher (unless we choose to stomp said poacher into a fine paste suitable for sandwiches). Magic will no longer be the domain of wizards when anyone can wield the flame of Anor. It is in these ridiculous activities that we might free our minds to conceive new ideas.
These are activities that anyone can take part in. As in the 1995 virtual reality classic Strange Days, the Rift could let someone in a wheelchair run along a beach. Being bedridden doesn’t mean you can’t fly to unexplored planets in a spaceship of your own making. Being 90 doesn’t mean you can’t ride a roller-coaster.
With such wondrous experiences available, we can only expect—as Strange Days warns—that some people will fall into virtual worlds a little too deeply, at the expense of actual life. It’s happened before with games like Everquest and World of Warcraft, but virtual reality has a more instant appeal once you try it, especially when there’s a lot more to do than viciously swing a sword at some poor orc for hours on end. For most, though, virtual reality won’t be the only reality. At least, not in the foreseeable future.
There are already lots of Oculus Rift experiences available, and many more planned. This is the beginning of something very special.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.