For the past two decades, the road to virtual reality has been a series of starts and stops littered with the carcasses of clunky, expensive and impractical concepts. Until now. Since its auspicious debut as a Kickstarter campaign in August 2012, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset has captured the imaginations of game developers and gamers alike.
Designed for immersive gaming, Oculus Rift plunges wearers into a virtual world where they can look in any direction free of a controller. The device employs a 7-inch stereoscopic 3D display split into two screens. Palmer Luckey, Oculus Rift's creator, along with his team, have been making steady improvements to the device ahead of the as-yet-undisclosed launch date in 2014. One such improvement has upgraded the headset panel to 1920 x 1080 from 1280 x 800 for a sharper image.
The Rift isn't the only VR headset on the market. Sony and Vuzix have released their own virtual reality headgear, such as the $999 HMZ-T3W headset and the $599 1200DX-VR. There are also rumors that Sony is working on a VR device to accompany the upcoming PlayStation 4. However, the Rift is selling for a more affordable $300 -- about the price you'd pay for a pair of quality headphones.
Backed by such industry heavy hitters as Valve CEO Gabe Newell and designer Cliff Bleszinksi, Oculus Rift's Kickstarter collected $2.5 million instead of its $250,000 funding goal in less than a month. Oculus VR has also secured $16 million in the first round of investor funding. The company was even able to get John Carmack, renowned game programmer, to join the team as the chief technology officer. Despite the nod from gaming big wigs and investors, Luckey acknowledges that there's still a lot of pressure.
"For the consumer version, we have to get it right -- really, really right. This is the first time in a long time that a lot consumers will be able to try VR. If we don't get it right, then a lot of people are going to lose faith in VR and say this whole comeback was BS all along."
In its quest for perfection, the Oculus VR team has turned its sights toward Android, announcing plans to launch a combination PC and mobile version of the headset. Citing the wide developer adoption rate and the toolset, Luckey has a long-term plan to build Google's operating system directly into the device. While the headset is the primary focus, the company is also looking into developing additional peripherals for an even more immersive experience.
Although the company has clearly been making strides, there are still a few kinks to work out, such as motion tracking. In addition, some people have complained of motion sickness and noticeable blurring when turning too fast while using the Rift.
"We have a few incredibly smart software engineers," Palmer says, "working on prediction models and rotation models and all kind of things that make the tracking better than anything in the industry and we’re really proud of that."
While Luckey and crew work on the hardware, game developers have been busy developing and porting games onto the system. And while we've seen some big-name software such as "Doom" and "Mirrors Edge" make the leap, much of Oculus Rift's support comes from independent game makers, because "indies can move much faster and can generally take their title and adapt it to VR rather quickly."
As we move closer to 2014 and a possible launch date, Oculus VR continues to work on the Rift, giving the world tantalizing peeks into the potential future of gaming. Using a formula of technology, accessibility and affordability, Oculus Rift is literally changing the way the game is played.
Game Changer Award Winners 2013
SMARTPHONE: Motorola Moto X
The Moto X is the first smartphone that lets you perform voice commands without touching your device.
CAMERA: Nokia Lumia 1020
The Lumia 1020 packs a 41-megapixel sensor and lets you zoom in on photos after you take them.
TABLET: Amazon Kindle Fire HDX
Amazon has reinvented tech support with the Mayday button on its new tablet.
WEARABLE TECH: Google Glass
A wearable breakthrough, Glass lets you snap pictures, get directions, speak to text and a whole lot more.
PC PERIPHERAL: Leap Motion
Leap Motion can read your hand gestures for doing everything from gaming to exploring the universe.
T-Mobile has shaken up the wireless world by nixing contracts and making phone upgrading easy.
Pebble is taking smartwatches mainstream with an e-paper display, useful apps and a low price.
Vine is a whole new way to communicate and tell stories via 6-second videos that are a cinch to share.
ENABLING TECHNOLOGY: Intel Bay Trail
Intel's powerful but efficient new CPU gives 2-in-1 tablets and laptops more speed and battery life.