I remember playing a virtual reality game in an arcade while waiting for a movie to start when I lived in Atlanta in the mid 90s. The game - which I just looked up - was a SU 2000 virtual reality game pod created by a company called Virtuality. It was awesome! (And expensive! $5 for a three-minute game if I recall correctly.)
I remember very clearly how incredible it was, in that it really gave you the sensation of being in a totally different world. Not only did the visuals give you a sense of space - even though it was crappy pre-Toy Story quality 3d chunky graphics - but the sound as well was amazing - the noisy theater waiting area went silent as the headpiece set down over my eyes and ears, and all I could hear was the sound from the game itself. The experience was truly immersive - you moved your head around to see the game area, and used the hand controls to move and shoot. When it was over (always way too soon), the rushing site and sound of the arcade would almost shock you as you came flying back when the operator helped you out of your gear. It was really intense, and probably worth all the hype VR received at the time, but it turned out to be just fad and quickly died out.
But now, almost 20 years there hasn't been a refresh at all. You'd think with all the effort made by Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo to enhance the game playing experience, that one of them would have tried a newer version of virtual reality, using today's smaller, faster, lighter, and higher quality technology. I mean, it wasn't a gimmick, VR headsets really did work. Or if not the console guys, it's surprising to me that there isn't already something similar today for PCs. First person shooters, flight simulation, racing games, etc. all would be amazing to play with a VR helmet, or even World of Warcraft or Minecraft...
Believe it or not, I actually wrote all the above a few months ago, and never got around to finishing up my post. And then I saw the Oculus Rift - a new company and Kickstarter project - launched last week at CES. Check out the site, it looks very, very cool. And all the reviews from the various tech-pubs have done nothing but rave about how amazing the experience using it is. I believe it! I had the same reaction years ago when I played that old VR arcade game - combining this with today's computer power must be mind blowing.
The one thing I wonder about is the Rift's lack of integrated headphones. Like I said above, I remember the sound being an integral part of the experience - both by cutting out external noise of the arcade, and by playing a big role in the virtual environment as well. You'd hear noises behind you, which would cause you turn and look. Maybe the Oculus guys just assume if you're really into it, you'll go buy some decent headphones, or use the ones you already have and like. Plus it'll make the whole system cheaper (and probably a little safer too... the people near you can yell out when you're about to crash into the couch or something...).
This is going to be really huge, I think, at least for gaming, and probably even beyond that as well. Think about it - if these sorts of headset become common, it'll require a total re-think about computer UIs and how we interact with computers - maybe it'll be a Kinect-like system that can detect our movements, or Minority Report style gloves, or maybe the best way will be some sort of thumb-stick or Wii-mote? Whatever it will be, it won't be a keyboard, mouse, trackpad or touchscreen - that much is certain.
Very cool stuff. I can't wait to try a Rift out for myself and see how good it is, but beyond that, the idea that there might be another big leap in computer UI and UX is pretty exciting. It'll be interesting to see where this leads.