We tossed around toys like kids. We played tetherball; I instantly sank back in time to elementary school, the last time I knocked a ball, tied to a string, around a rusty steel pole.
I didn’t feel it — the ball — resting in my holographic hand. But I sensed it there with my eyes. It almost felt real.
“Almost” sums up virtual reality today. Oculus, the company behind the headset I tried this month, is almost ready to release its first consumer device, the Rift. At $599 a pop, the headset is almost accessibly priced. And life inside the Rift is almost real; the experience is awe-inducing, but it takes time to ignore the headset’s imperfections — awkward fit and unfinished software, to name a few.
The longer I wore the Rift, however, the less I noticed these flaws. Eventually they almost disappeared. And if my experience is any indicator of broader acceptance, prepare to watch your friends and families become believers.
I hardly got a good look at the Rift before an Oculus staffer held it above my head inside a nearly empty demo room. He told me I’d play a game called Toy Box. Before I donned the device, a second member of the team said she’d speak to me during the demo through my headset. Then she briskly left the room.
It took a surprising amount of wiggling to get the headset on just right; my glasses hardly fit inside. I extended my arms, and two Touch controls — Oculus’ strange-looking game controllers that sense movement — were slipped on my hands by the male staffer, who remained in the room. Seconds later, I stood inside a virtual room and saw her, the Oculus employee I’d just met, in hologram form, a floating head and pair of holographic hands. She asked if I wanted to play with her toys.
I stood beside a table blanketed with blocks, robots, table tennis balls, a paddle, slingshots, and a big tetherball. I looked down and saw my own holographic hands. I reached out to grab a block and dropped it. In this virtual world, if you hold onto something and let go, it falls. This sounds obvious, but it goes against the way most video games have worked for decades.
We played table tennis. I grabbed a paddle in one hand, a ball in the other, tossed the ball in the air, and served it. This is trickier than it sounds. She missed the ball and served it again. I missed it, then served again, this time a bit too hard, and the ball flew out into empty space. The balls respawned on the table. We kept playing. Following Oculus’ script — made to showcase the platform — my guide grabbed a glass-looking globe and smashed it, suddenly reducing the gravity in the room to spacewalk simulator levels. We played a bit more. Table tennis was easier that way.
“Ready to go to the next room?” she asked.
Here, toys were replaced by pyrotechnics. My guide grabbed a lighter and instructed me to do the same. I reached for it, instinctively flicked my wrist to the right, lit a sparkler, and snapped my wrist back. The lighter closed. She spelled out her name in the air with a pair of sparklers. We moved on to Roman candles, firing them off into space. Two toy tanks sat nearby. We grabbed controllers off the table and blew each other’s tanks up.
Not once did I feel even a touch of motion sickness. No dizziness or disorientation. I had tried an earlier release of the headset, Development Kit 2, and felt sick to my stomach for hours afterward. The two experiences are not comparable.
We went to the next room.
This one looked like a carnival stand. My guide taught me how to throw a boomerang, and when it swung back toward me, I reached out and caught it mid-air. We grabbed laser guns and made our own skeet-shooter game. She grabbed a second cartoonish gun, pointed it toward me, and pulled the trigger.
I looked around, and the toys I’d played with ballooned in size. My guide’s voice grew distorted and low as she towered over me. I stood now on the tabletop, a couple of inches tall. Her voice contorted into a guttural, villain’s laugh.
She pointed the gun at my face again and I returned to normal hologram size. “You sound funny when you’re small,” she said — the game altered my voice, too, into something squeaky. “You sound funny when you’re big,” I said.
There’s no narrative to Toy Box — just a set of experiences designed to show off the vastness of VR.
We killed time, firing lasers at ceramic plates, bunnies, and masks, and tossing objects off the table out into empty space.
At the end of the demo, I waited a moment before pulling the Rift off my face to take it all in. I was grinning ear to ear.
A moment later, my guide emerged from the other room, and, to my surprise, I didn’t recognize her. I realized I hadn’t really taken a good look at her face before — I knew her better as a hologram. I’d stood there playing games with someone who felt so present, but physically wasn’t. I’d gotten to know her. Then again, I hadn’t.
Outside the room, as I thanked the staffers present, I reached out and shook someone’s hand — it felt all too real. In VR, I had held things without the sensation of touch. After enough time passed with the headset on, my body adapted.
But now, without the Oculus, real life created a sensory overload. I’d physically removed the headset, and was conscious it was off, but the feeling of virtualness lingered.
I held off on leaving for a moment. My brain needed more than a few minutes to adjust. If video games are addictive today, what will virtual reality bring?
I stood there tapping the solid wood of a nearby table to feel something physical, drunk on the promise of what I’d seen, waiting to snap out of it.