Is Virtual Reality the Next Big Thing in Gaming?

The Oculus Rift headset
The Oculus Rift headset

Virtual Reality seems like a remnant from the 1990s—a nifty sounding technology that failed to live up to its potential, hamstrung by bulky headsets and overly high expectations.

But the team at the start-up Oculus thinks there's still a lot of potential in the idea—and it has managed to bring several of the video game industry's top developers onboard.

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The Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that's roughly the size of a pair of ski goggles, raised $2.4 million last year through one of Kickstarter's most successful campaigns. Later this month, the company will ship out some 10,000 developer kits. And while a lot of those will end up in the hands of eager fans that won't quite know what to do with them, Oculus is hoping the ones who do will move virtual reality into the fast lane.

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"It has been imagined for the last 30 or 40 years and the hardware just wasn't ready," said Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus. "Virtual reality never got its legs. In our eyes, this is the first time it's ready. And it's only ready for developers right now."

In fact, Oculus isn't committing to a commercial launch. The company's hoping for 2014, but Iribe concedes that 2015 is a possibility.

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There are a couple factors that give this new virtual reality push a better chance at catching on with mainstream audiences. First, technological advances make the Rift much more comfortable to wear than early virtual reality headsets, which often resulted in neck pain for the users.

Perhaps more importantly, the graphical capabilities of today's interactive entertainment have increased exponentially. And while they still far short of "reality," they're immersive enough that players don't seem to mind.

Among the developers experimenting with the Oculus Rift are Valve Software (makers of "Half-Life" and "Team Fortress") and Epic Games (creator of "Gears of War" and the Unreal graphics engine, which is one of the most commonly used graphics engines in games). Those relationships are critical, since it's the content that will ultimately determine the Rift's fate.

"We have to have great virtual reality content," said senior product manager Joseph Chen. "That's why we're putting such emphasis on game developers...We think new games will evolve out of this. It's not just going to be 'go there/ kill this.'"

That said, the company doesn't expect to hit the market with a big AAA game behind it. Instead of making a big initial splash, Oculus hopes for a slow build of momentum—with the first wave of titles more likely to be ports or mid-range titles in the first wave.

"We're gonna have AAA, but AAA takes time," says Chen. "We'll initially get ports—and those will be cool—but it's that second generation where things start to get really exciting."

Part of the problem is training game developers to do away with some of the crutches they use today. Cut scenes, for example, rip players who are using the Oculus Rift out of the interactive experience much more so than standard players. And the bobbing movement that many developers insert to simulate footsteps is distracting when you've the headset on.

There's also a big difference between a 3D demo and gameplay The no-action demo is fantastic. A scene showing off the Unreal 3D engine makes the falling snow more realistic and one has to fight the urge to reach down and touch the crate beside them. But hop into a game of Unreal Tournament and there's sensory overload as you keep track with the movement.

That's going to require gamers to go through a mental training process of sorts to avoid the feeling of motion sickness— much like they did when 3D computer graphics were first introduced.

None of this is news to Oculus. The company has been careful to label itself as still a product in development and tried to temper some of the early excitement so expectations don't get unreasonably high. And it's working closely with developers to warn them of potential hazards that come with developing a virtual reality environment.

"Bad VR (virtual reality) will get to you," says Chen. "That's why we need to work with the developers to let them know what we've learned."