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Virtual reality turned me into the Hulk, but I'm glad I took some Dramamine first

Key Points
  • Entering an immersive virtual reality game for the first time is by turns disorienting and exhilarating.
  • With the right preparation, a novice can transform into the Incredible Hulk in short order.
  • Lower prices, more titles — and perhaps a couple of Dramamine tablets — could be key to helping Facebook reap a return on its Oculus investments.

If Facebook's Oculus division and other makers of virtual-reality gear want their products to go mainstream, they're going to need new marketing tactics.

Lowering prices on VR equipment and producing a wider variety and greater number of games, as Oculus has done this year, are good places to start, although Facebook still won't give any sales figures.

Yet if they want inexperienced video game-players to warm up to the technology, they may want to consider shipping every headset with a dose of Dramamine. And providing detailed playing instructions — and a disclaimer that the experience may be disorienting at first — wouldn't hurt, either.

That's what Oculus did for me — a true video-gaming novice — and it helped help turn my first VR into a positive one.

"We've said ubiquitous VR is a 10-year or 20-year vision," said Nate Mitchell, co-founder of Oculus and currently head of Rift, the company's headset product. "A lot of people are still skeptical," he added, during a one-on-one interview last week.

I'm one of those skeptics. I get queasy after too much texting in a moving car — never mind being immersed in a virtual world.

Last week, Oculus invited to test out two immersive, multi-player VR games as part of a product demonstration for media in San Francisco. Echo Arena was finished and released this week, and I also got to play a test version of Marvel Powers United, which will require many more months of development.

They are among the flashiest, loudest and most-expensive VR games ever made.

"We've been investing a ton in content," Mitchell told a group of reporters before the demonstrations had begun.

I had never played a virtual reality game in my life. Less than an hour later, thanks to a combination of expert guidance, persistence and two Dramamine doses, I had been transformed by one of those games from a beginner into a lethal, virtual version of Marvel's Incredible Hulk character.

The virtual me, going virtually nowhere

The first sensation I had while starting to play Echo Arena, a free game published by Oculus Studios and released July 20, was disorientation.

I was standing on a thick rubber mat in a room with hardwood floors and huge windows to my right, looking out at another building in the city's South of Market district.

A demonstrator then placed Rift goggles snugly over my eyes to block out the sights of the real world, and headphones went in my ears to block out the sounds.

Two Rift Touch controllers — hardware add-ons that Oculus has started including with each headset — were in my hands.

The first problem was that there were also two voices (and sometimes more) in my ears.

Those belonged to other game players and to David Yee, an Oculus executive producer on the game, which was made by an independent developer called Ready at Dawn and published by Facebook's now-shuttered Oculus Studios.

Yee was giving me instructions that sounded helpful but which I couldn't follow, because I didn't know where the Touch control buttons were.

As a result, I was bobbing and stepping around the rubber mat, arms moving, while the virtual version of me went virtually nowhere. "Grab hold of my shoulder and I'll guide you through the passageway," Yee told me as I pawed and clawed my way around the edges of a room — far from the action.

When I started to float around the simulated zero-gravity environment of the lobby in Echo Arena, bracing my head for a virtual collision with a bulkhead, I was glad for the Dramamine.

With Yee's aid, I eventually finally found my way to a part of the game where I could actually see other players moving around.

But I was never able to help my teammates score any points by throwing balls through a goal.

When I took off the goggles and readjusted to the brightness of the room around me, I felt lightheaded and dizzy.

I am the Hulk. Fear me!

After 15 minutes of much-needed rest, I was ready to try the beta version of Marvel Powers United VR, which is not set for release for many months.

By this time, I had figured out the Touch hand controllers — a key technology improvement that helps players take better advantage of what's known as a "mixed reality" environment.

Such an environment allows players to not only use their hands in the game but also to see them, as well as having multiple points of view from within the game, said Jason Rubin, vice president of content of Oculus, during the presentation by him and Mitchell prior to the demo.

"Games have had just one camera," Rubin said.

"Now, we've put the camera in the game," he added, which was no small engineering feat. "Mixed reality took a lot of work."

It also produces a lot of fun.

Thanks to some more expert instruction, my virtual Incredible Hulk character learned to bring his huge fists together to generate energy. That energy glowed in front of me — the Hulk — as I stood in a gigantic room the size of a warehouse.

Enemy characters moved around me at the edge of the room, or ran along a catwalk above it.

By swinging my arms down violently, I was able to unleash that energy, which rippled across the floor of the room like an earthquake tearing up asphalt.

Soon I was able to target these energy blasts, known as "Thunderclaps," at my virtual foes with deadly accuracy.

At other times I hurled their bodies across the debris-filled room with a move known as a "Seismic Toss," according to my game guide.

Although I had largely missed out on the action in the first game, in Marvel Powers United I was able to protect my teammates, including a wise-guy raccoon called Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy franchise.

He, in turn, saved my virtual, green, hulking self from laser gun fire on multiple occasions.

The Rift platform will have more social features and more titles coming soon, said Oculus co-founder Mitchell, in time for the company's developer conference, Oculus Connect 4, in October.

"We want to create a content portfolio that appeals to everyone," said Rift's Mitchell.

If it does, it could help VR gaming break out of its current niche status within the $30 billion U.S. video game industry.

The goal is to convince consumers "to give VR a chance," he said.

Those consumers should prepare themselves for an experience that is by turns disorienting and exhilarating.

Consumers can now get a Rift headset and two Touch hand controllers bundled together for $399. When the sale ends, the price will return to $499.