Back in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas — and before he became the newest recipient of Facebook's riches — Oculus VR co-founder and CEO Brendan Iribe opined on the future of virtual reality, and Oculus' place in it. "We believe it will blow open the virtual-reality category," Iribe boasted of the mind-altering Oculus Rift virtual-reality 3D goggles I had just worn for the first time.
Maybe it's not a fair comparison, but I found my maiden Oculus Rift demo way more thrilling than the first time I wore the early prototype of what is now Google Glass.
Oh sure, I understood then and now the challenges and realities of virtual reality, which, despite years of promise and potential, really hadn't gotten very far. But this Oculus moment was a time to revel in what might be, not what wasn't. I dismissed the fact that I was wearing large geeky-looking headgear, that spending more than a few minutes with the prototype might possibly induce nausea, not to mention that we didn't know what Oculus might cost, when exactly it would be ready for consumers or which developers would embrace it in a major way.
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We still don't have all the answers. But we now know where the money is going to come from (thank you, Facebook, which is shelling out $2 billion to acquire the start-up). And we have a decent sense of the vision. Oculus made its initial mark in gaming, where it is an obvious fit. What's more interesting to me — and apparently to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg — is how it then moves much further afield and evolves into a new social paradigm.
Some early examples Iribe laid out to me at CES sounded intriguing but weren't as social as the reality it was standing in for. He hinted at virtual-reality vacations: "Imagine putting a 360-camera with audio as well on the top of Mount Everest or a beach in Barcelona."(As someone who doesn't love heights, loathes the cold and appreciates oxygen, Oculus is going to be as close to the summit of Everest as I ever get.)
Iribe moved on to mention futuristic applications in architecture, education, real estate, medicine and, of course, other forms of entertainment.
At South By Southwest in Austin, I got to experience Oculus for a second time. Using four Kinect cameras that were paired with four high-end Canon EOS 5D Mark III digital cameras, my body was scanned from all sides and then "teleported" into outer space.
Shortly afterwards, I put on the Oculus headset and watched my newly scanned virtual alter ego explore digital worlds. As I moved my head, my clone moved too, navigating immersive 3-D scenes that alternated between a frozen tundra, marshy volcanic environment and a desert landscape. It was awesome stuff.
So where are we? A Facebook-backed Oculus appears to give virtual reality its biggest lift yet. But as we've seen with Sony's recent unveiling of its own Project Morpheus virtual reality headset, competition is likely to be formidable, with certain big-name companies yet to be heard from (Apple? Google?).
However it evolves, this is still a long-term play. But virtual reality and the related technology of augmented reality — visual layers of information tied to your location that appear on top of whatever reality you're seeing — seem inevitable. As Zuckerberg reminded us in his post announcing Facebook's acquisition of Oculus: "Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the Internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones."