Virtual Reality has been promised for decades, but in my conversations with the top developers in the field, it quickly became clear that never before have so much money and talent bet on its imminent arrival. Headsets will start going on sale this year, and competition will increase dramatically through 2016. At first they’ll be bought by hardcore gamers and gadget geeks. They’ll be expensive–as much as $1,500 with all the accoutrements. And just as with cell phones, everyone else will mock the early adopters for mindlessly embracing unnecessary technology with no useful purpose. At first.
A good place to start that mocking would have been AT&T Park. In April, a group of virtual-reality entrepreneurs are wearing huge bright red plastic sunglasses, walking on the field where the San Francisco Giants play. Venture capitalist Mike Rothenberg, 30, rented the stadium so the 360 guests he’s invited can see the 20 virtual-reality companies that his firm, Rothenberg Ventures, has funded. They can also take batting practice, drink cocktails, pet adoptable dogs and build their own goody bags.
“It’s hard for people to write checks for virtual reality until they try it. Then, not that hard,” he says. He likens this opportunity to the Internet in 1995. “No one calls a company an ‘Internet company’ anymore. In 10 years, everyone will have VR as part of their company.” — Venture capitalist Mike Rothenberg
It’s already starting. Lately, I’ve been bombarded by virtual reality. At a party in Los Angeles in May, Patrón launched a virtual tour of the hacienda in Mexico where its agave is distilled. Birchbox announced that this month its men’s subscription box will include a virtual-reality viewer and app allowing its subscribers to surf or fly a helicopter. And at North Face stores, you can see virtual video of dudes climbing a rock face in the company’s gear. James Blaha, a game developer with severe lazy eye–a condition that affects about 2% to 3% of the world’s population–has used virtual reality to basically cure the disease in 30-minute sessions over three to four weeks; he’s sold 1,000 copies of the system to optometrists already. And Hollywood is putting nearly as much money as Silicon Valley into the concept.
Nearly every week, there’s a virtual-reality convention. Standing in line with 1,500 other people for the sold-out Virtual Reality Los Angeles spring expo in March to visit the booths of more than 50 companies, I am asked to sign a contract. It is not, like other tech releases, about me not telling anyone about anything I saw or thought I might have seen here. Instead, it says, “I am aware that some people experience nausea, disorientation, motion sickness, general discomfort, headaches or other health issues when experiencing virtual reality.” The final platform is not making a great first impression.
Two months after Facebook paid $2 billion for Oculus, Google responded at its annual I/O conference in San Francisco’s Moscone Center by handing each of the audience members a piece of flat cardboard as they left the keynote presentation. This, they were told, when folded up and paired with a smartphone, was Google’s new virtual-reality player. Most people thought it was a joke. But with two cheap plastic magnifying lenses placed in a box that cradles your phone, it can create a 3-D effect not unlike that of much more expensive equipment. At the Googleplex, Clay Bavor, vice president of product management, shows me the second generation of Google Cardboard. “The delta between expectation and delivery is so high,” says Bavor. “It’s cardboard–how good can it be? And then it’s like, ‘Whoa! I’m sitting somewhere else!'”
You can download an app made by Jaunt and get a good sense of what it’s like to be backstage at a Paul McCartney concert. Google teamed up with GoPro to make a wheel of 16 cameras that shoots 360-degree video and created software that allows you to stitch the shots together into a video you can then upload to the new virtual-reality section of YouTube. Through a program called Expeditions, Google has already sent 100 classrooms a field trip in a box; teachers use Cardboards to lead kids through natural, architectural and Martian wonders. The company worked with partners like the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History to create 3-D images not unlike those in the plastic viewfinders that were popular in the 1970s. This comparison isn’t lost on Google, which has a deal with Mattel to put out a version of Google Cardboard in a View-Master.
Oculus has also entered the mobile space, since it isn’t planning to release its main product, the Rift, until 2016. (“If the iPhone were introduced in any quarter, it would have been a hit. I doubt they were saying, ‘What’s important for the iPhone? We have to hit Christmas,'” says Luckey about letting his competition beat him to market.) Oculus partnered with Samsung to build Gear VR, a pair of goggles with motion detectors that you can slip a Galaxy Note 4 phone into. The device is available at Best Buy for $200 and is lent to first-class passengers on Qantas.
Three high-end virtual-reality products not made of cardboard are being put out by Oculus, Sony and Valve. The latter two companies have an advantage in that their gamer customers already own machines with powerful graphics capabilities. Founded by former Microsoft developers, Valve makes popular games and runs the Steam download store, which sells about three-quarters of all PC games.
As I walk into one of the rooms used for demonstrating the company’s Vive headset, scheduled to be released this Christmas, I see Steve Jurvetson, one of the most powerful Silicon Valley venture capitalists, walking out of the other one. Valve gives several demonstrations a day. “We won’t talk to people until they have a demo,” says Ken Birdwell, a longtime employee. “If we talked to them before, it would just be arguments about why these things wouldn’t work. After, they say, ‘We have to hurry. We have six months until this hits the consumer space.'” When they agreed to show their technology to an employee of Taiwanese smartphone manufacturer HTC, they were surprised when she turned out to be Cher Wang, who runs the company. After seeing it, Wang asked if HTC could manufacture the product for Valve, which it is now doing.
Unlike Google Cardboard or anything else you can buy right now, the Vive requires you to hook it up to a computer fast enough for gaming. And for you to be physically attached to that computer with a wire. And to strap on a pouch. And to put little laser sensors in the corners of the room. In return, you can get out of your chair and unvirtually walk around the virtual world you see through the Vive goggles.
They strap the Vive goggles and pack on me, put a controller in each of my hands and bring up the menu. I instantly understand virtual reality. At the press of a button, I inflate and release a cartoon balloon in the air, and it floats into the infinite black sky. This is just to make sure the controllers work, so they want me to move on, but I keep doing it. The sense of scale is like seeing the night sky for the first time in a national park: peaceful, awesome, meditative. I feel like I have disappeared.
Maybe virtual reality will be a radical new form of expression. Maybe it will just be for short, immersive, therapeutic experiences. Or maybe it’s just another entertainment medium to accompany theater, painting, print, music and film.