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My bizarre trip into virtual reality with Facebook’s Oculus

April 1, 2015, 7:58 PM UTC
Day Two Of Mobile World Congress 2015
A visitor tests an Oculus VR Inc. virtual reality headset at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on Tuesday, March 3, 2015. The event, which generates several hundred million euros in revenue for the city of Barcelona each year, also means the world for a week turns its attention back to Europe for the latest in technology, despite a lagging ecosystem. Photographer: Pau Barrena/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Pau Barrena — Bloomberg/Getty Images

I stood on the ledge of a skyscraper and looked down at the cars—tiny specks, really—driving by on the street below. All that stood between me and the pavement was hundreds of feet of air.

Suddenly, a woman’s voice jolted me from my near-hypnosis: Step out, she said. Walk around.

Well, sure. Why not? (I told myself this with my usual cavalier attitude about danger.) Then my brain took over and my feet refused to budge for fear of falling off the edge. Nope—not going to happen, I told her.

This was my first try of Oculus Rift, the virtual-reality goggles that can place a person wearing them into a sort of uncanny video game. Despite my initial skepticism, the technology seemed all-too realistic—to the point that I couldn’t overcome my natural instinct for self-preservation. Intellectually, I knew full-well I was standing safely inside a former military warehouse in San Francisco with a ridiculous looking electronic device strapped to me head. But my brain overrode logic and left me immobilized.

Last year, in a bit of a head-scratching move, Facebook (FB) acquired the startup behind this headset, Oculus VR, for $2 billion. The sci-fi technology seemed like a big departure for a company best known for a social network filled vacation photos, videos of cute kittens, and parents sharing silly stories about their children. But Facebook has big plans for Oculus that include video games, movies, and virtual doctor appointments. The goal is to bring people together in ways they never could before, Mike Schroepfer, Facebook’s chief technology officer, said last week at the company’s developer conference.

He used the example of his daughter’s birthday party and how some friends and family had missed it. In the future, they could instead wear Oculus to put themselves in the middle of the celebration, even if they are really thousands of miles away. “I wish that everyone would have been teleported to that moment,” Schroepfer told the audience.

Well, Facebook vision for Oculus is certainly ambitious. But there’s still a lot of technical work to be done to live up to the hype, as Schroepfer readily acknowledged. (The Oculus headset isn’t yet available to the general public. For now, only software developers can buy the headset to toy around with and invent ways to use it.) Moreover, does wearing bulky goggles that preclude face-to-face contact really bring you closer to friends and family? Or does it create distance and isolation?

I hoped to find out in my test of Oculus, which involved the latest, prototype version of its headset, called Crescent Bay. For around 10 minutes, I tried it out in a dark empty room with a woman standing nearby to guide me (and keep me from wandering off a small floor mat and face-plant into a wall).

In addition to standing on the skyscraper, I faced off with a snarling Tyrannosaurus Rex with a mouth full of sharp teeth. I was also caught in a street battle with bullets and explosions going off all around me while debris hurtled through the air in slow motion.

I could tilt my head up, down and behind me to get a different view, just like in real life. Images shifted smoothly with no lag time that would have made the experience seem phony. In a welcome sign, I never felt nauseous—a common problem reported by people who have used previous versions of Oculus. But my reaction never matched the vertigo I felt standing on the skyscraper ledge. Maybe my brain isn’t hardwired to fear slightly cartoonish dinosaurs and robots.

Next, I moved downstairs to try out Samsung Gear VR, a headset with a lower resolution display that seemed, in some ways, to be more immediately ready for prime time. I could easily imagine television and movie studios along with video game makers using the technology to make their productions more immersive.

While sitting in a chair, I dropped in on a Mongolian family filmed inside their yurt and thought how fantastic the technology would be as part of a documentary. I spun around to inspect every part of their home, although the family didn’t seem to notice me.

I also spied a scene from the Hollywood movie Wild as actress Reese Witherspoon’s character, an exhausted backpacker, spoke with an apparition of her dead mother on a mountainside. They never saw me standing there between them, which made me feel almost like an eavesdropper.

It was the same feeling watching Jerry Seinfeld warm up the crowd during Saturday Night Live‘s 40th anniversary show. I could watch the monologue from the perspective of atop the main camera near the audience. After a few seconds, I realized that celebrities filled most of the chairs around me. While Seinfeld joked, I turned my back to him and tried to pick out the actors I recognized like Adam Sandler, John Goodman, and Michael Douglas.

On one hand, it was an incredible experience to feel like I was there with Hollywood’s elite, and, course, the Mongolian family and the snarling dinosaur before. But I also felt a twinge of apprehension because it seemed so easy to confuse this virtual world for reality. In some ways, it could be a blessing by letting people better experience other cultures, like the Mongolian yurt, than they can by watching broadcast television. But I also feared the potential risk of some people choosing to spend most of their time in this fantasy world to escape their hum-drum existence and real human contact.