Convincing virtual reality has always been the stuff of science fiction. In the '90s we saw people on TV stumbling around wireframe worlds with bulky red boxes strapped to their heads, but that was as good as it got. Then, in 2012, the Oculus Rift was revealed.
This new VR headset allows you to step into detailed 3D environments, accurately tracking your head movements so you can look around as naturally as you would in real life. It's being marketed primarily as a gaming device, but its potential extends far beyond that. Facebook clearly recognises this; hence its decision to buy Oculus for $2 billion. "One day," says Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, "we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people."
The Rift isn't available to the public yet, but we have a development kit that's been giving us an enticing glimpse of its immersive power, from interactive art to virtual cinema screens. Here are the 10 best experiences we've had with this incredible technology so far, each demonstrating a different facet of the device's immense potential.
01. Blocked In
In this demo you find yourself sitting at a desk in a detailed apartment, in which creator Daniël Ernst has used hand-painted textures to give it a stylised look. When you turn your head to look to your right, you notice that, outside the window, colossal Tetris blocks are falling from the sky. It's only a basic demo - you can't move or interact with the world - but it creates a rich sense of being in a real space.
02. Frequency Domain
Import a music file into Frequency Domain and it'll transform the waveform of the song into a surreal landscape. As you fly through the environment, abstract shapes, almost like mountains, are formed around you, pulsing in time with the music. It's a wonderful marriage of sound and art, and it's a strange experience to see your favourite songs visualised as psychedelic alien vistas.
Dutch artist Sander Bos created Astralium using the Unreal engine, which is normally used to make video games. It sees you floating through a sea of shimmering particles, using your head to steer. Ambient music adds to its dreamlike nature, and the way the lights drift past your head as you move gives it remarkable depth. A beautiful example of how VR can be used for interactive art.
04. Blue Marble
Blue Marble is a brief, cinematic demo that sees you inhabiting the space suit of an astronaut floating away from the Earth. As asteroids and satellites drift past your helmet, you find yourself instinctively moving your head to avoid them. These kinds of passive sequences, in which no input is required, are often the best way to experience Rift. You can just sit back and enjoy the ride.
05. The Cave
This proof of concept for virtual user interfaces is set in a detailed version of the Batcave, and its holographic visuals borrow heavily from the Iron Man films. Watching the UI elements swirl around you is an impressive sight, and we can see this tech being implemented in both video games and applications. The demo also shows off its creator's 3D body scanning technology.
06. VR Cinema
Import a movie file into this virtual cinema and you can watch it on a convincing full-size cinema screen. You're free to wander around the theatre as it plays, and the screen feels genuinely massive. Cleverly, the lighting in the room is dynamic, generated by the colour and brightness of the screen. It's like having your own personal 500-inch TV, and you don't have to worry about people talking through the film.
07. Jerry's Place
This 3D recreation of Jerry Seinfeld's apartment from his hit '90s sitcom may seem like a strange use for the Rift, but it's a step towards being able to explore our favourite film and TV sets in VR. It's a surreal sensation seeing a place you know so well from the screen in three dimensions. Another demo lets you explore a location from Japanese animated classic Spirited Away.
In this virtual art gallery, famous paintings hang on the walls and can be studied in detail thanks to sharp, high resolution textures. It's only a rough concept, and a fictional setting, but the creators want the tech to be used to explore real-world galleries like the Louvre in the future. This kind of virtual tourism could become an important part of the Oculus Rift breaking into the mainstream.
This is one of the earliest Oculus Rift demos, but also one of the best. In it you explore the grounds of an idyllic Tuscan villa. Notable is the use of sound. Approach a balcony overlooking the sea and the sound of waves grows stronger, creating a powerful feeling of immersion. With its simple controls and recognisable setting, this is an ideal demo for introducing non-gamers to the Rift.
Technolust is a richly detailed cyberpunk adventure inspired by Blade Runner. There are game elements here, but it's the world itself that impresses most. Look out of the window of your apartment and you see a vast futuristic city stretching into the distance. It's a great example of how important realistic, natural lighting is to making a virtual reality space feel convincing.
Words: Andy Kelly