June 16th, 2014
03:08 PM ET

Virtual reality's new reality

There’s something a little strange that one of today’s hottest trends in technology is… virtual reality.

It’s an idea that seems past its time; sitting alongside household atomic generators and personal jetpacks as visions for the future that seem laughable today. But VR isn’t a joke anymore.

I had the chance to try on the headset that has almost single-handedly revived interest in virtual reality: the Oculus Rift.

For now, the Rift is only in the prototype stage and has some way to go before it’s ready for consumers. Still, even at this early stage the potential of the Rift is incredible.

It looks big and bulky, but once it was strapped to my head I couldn’t feel the weight of the Rift. The whole setup is slightly cumbersome; you have the headset, then you have to put on headphones and find your controller — without being able to see either, because your eyes are covered by the Rift.

My first impressions of the Rift? It’s a little unsettling. I was surprised by the low resolution of the screen, individual pixels reminding me that my eyes were millimeters away from them; I was acutely aware of the edges of the display; and basically, I could feel like I had a big plastic visor strapped to my face.

But then you move your head… and your view of the world shifts almost perfectly with your movement. Move your head to the left, and you’re looking left.

I played a 3D platforming game called Lucky’s Tale (from the creator of Words With Friends). To be brutally honest, it felt a little like a simple Mario clone: You make a cute little fox run and jump along a basic path running from left to right. Then the path turns back to the left… and you find yourself scoping out the way ahead simply by turning your head to look at it.

Video games have allowed you to move your view of the world for years through a controller. It’s not a new idea. But with the Rift, looking around a game’s world is as natural as looking around our own.

That’s when the Oculus Rift experience starts to click, and it all starts to work.

And that’s how I found myself sweating my way through a demo of Alien: Isolation. I’m on the starship Sevastopol, armed with only a flashlight and a motion detector, trying to get to the exit before the HR Giger’s famous Alien finds me.

I crept down a corridor towards a large room, hoping the creature wasn’t hiding ahead.

Hiding just to the side of the door, I look left, then right, then down at my motion tracker; no sign of the Alien. The way seems clear.

As I make my way to the left, a hiss of steam from the right sends me scurrying behind a crate. And striding through the steam? My deadly enemy.

I kept my head down, hoping it didn’t see me, holding my breath until the sound of footsteps dies away. Maybe it’s safe to take a peek?

I raise my head slowly until I find myself staring beyond the crate — and into the jaws of the Alien.

Back in the real world, I’m told I actually jumped out of the seat.

It’s an experience that goes deeper thanks to the power of virtual reality, and an experience I can’t wait to try again.

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Filed under: Gadgets • Games • Technology
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