TIME Virtual Reality

11 Things We Learned By Trying Every Virtual Reality Headset Out There

It's going to be a wild ride—and it starts this Christmas

In the August 17 cover story of TIME, we take a deep look at the mainstreaming of virtual reality, the long-promised technology that is now becoming widely available to consumers. Headsets from Facebook’s Oculus, Valve, Sony, Microsoft, Google and many others will start going on sale this year, and competition will increase dramatically through 2016. Throughout this year, we set out to try every major in-development headset out there. These devices promise to change not only entertainment, but education, health, and work. Here’s some of what we learned:

1. Palmer Luckey, the creator of the Oculus Rift, is not your typical nerd…

He’s cheery and talks in normal sentences that are easy to understand. He was homeschooled, and though he did drop out of college, it was California State University, Long Beach, where he was majoring not in computer science but in journalism. He prefers shorts, and his feet are black because he doesn’t like wearing shoes, even outdoors. He doesn’t look like a guy who played Dungeons & Dragons so much as a character in Dungeons & Dragons. He’s a nerd from a different century, working on the problems of a different century.

2. …and he kicked off this revolution by tinkering in his garage.

As an 18-year-old who took apart smartphones and fixed them for cash, Luckey figured out that the solutions to the problems virtual-reality engineers weren’t able to solve were right inside his phone. Now 22, he sold his company, Oculus VR, to Facebook last year for $2.3 billion, allowing it to grow to more than 350 employees in offices in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Dallas and Austin as well as in South Korea and Japan. That’s because, as fantastical as Luckey’s dreams were, Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of the tech industry had a much bigger hope for the sensory-­immersion goggles Luckey used to carry around in a yellow bucket in order to hold loose wires. They had seen the Internet get disrupted by mobile and were wary of being blindsided by the next platform for accessing ­information—which they think might just have been hiding in Luckey’s yellow bucket. (Here’s how Mark Zuckerberg explains VR.)

3. Silicon Valley is pouring money into the concept like crazy.

Venture capitalist Mike Rothenberg, who runs a VR accelerator, says his firm has already secured enough money to invest in a second round of virtual-reality companies this fall. “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.”

4. But Luckey doesn’t feel pressure to bring out the Rift by Christmas, even though others will have come out by then.

“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.

5. Google already has a low-tech version, dubbed Cardboard (because that’s what it’s made of), on the market.

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.

6. Valve, the gaming company that will be first of the high-end manufactures to market with its Vive headset this year, is full of true believers who can’t wait for you to get your hands on VR.

The Vive is different because it lets you walk around in a virtual environment, rather than staying seated in your chair. The headset alerts you when you’re near a wall, but it requires you to have a 16-by-12-ft. (5 by 4 m) empty room in your house. Jeep Barnett, who has worked on the project from the beginning, isn’t worried. “Sell your dining-room table and eat over your sink,” he says. “If you have a pool table, get rid of that. Get a Murphy bed. People are going to find a space. You have a space for your car because you have to have the superpower of getting downtown in 20 minutes.”

7. Sony, which also has a headset coming out for the Playstation 4, says the hardware is becoming less important than the software.

Richard Marks, a senior researcher at Sony, says that in the past few months it has gotten the hardware far enough along that the software will now matter more. Already, he says, what game designers call “talent amplification” is more impressive than he imagined. “I can point at something and have the force and levitate it, and it really feels like I’m doing it. When you play a game, you say, ‘I died.’ But in virtual reality, man, it’s even more powerful.” I try a few more games before I’m ushered out so they can clear the room for a VIP. As I walk out, Steven ­Spielberg walks in.

8. Some of the coolest applications have nothing to do with gaming.

In the most impressive virtual-­reality experience I have, I use a program called Tilt Brush (since purchased by Google, which has a bunch of high-end virtual-reality projects it’s keeping quiet) to paint in three dimensions. Walking around dripping neon, I paint in the sky in a way that makes me never need to try LSD.

9. Microsoft is trying to leapfrog everybody else with its own Hololens, which is technically augmented reality since it projects holograms onto the real world.

Alex Kipman is in charge of the Hololens, having overseen Microsoft Kinect, the Xbox add-on that allowed people to control what happens onscreen by waving their hands and using their voices, like in Minority Report. When the first version of Kinect was released five years ago, it was the coolest thing Micro­soft had ever made. Kipman is also cool. He’s got a Brazilian accent and dresses like a man who takes Burning Man seriously: shiny gray pants; a long jacket with embroidery; blunt, shoulder-length hair. “If I told people at Microsoft I wanted to make virtual reality, they would have nodded their head yes,” he says. But Kipman wants to save us from spending yet more time on our computers instead of with one another. “Virtual reality is not embracing that which makes us human. Kinect was about ­embracing what’s in all of us. Humans exist in the real world. Holograms say, ‘Hey, technology has become sophisticated enough today that we’re ready to go beyond being stuck behind pixels all day long.’” Holograms, he believes, will reverse our isolation and inactivity.

10. There’s debate within the community about what VR is really good for.

Jeremy Bailenson, who founded Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab in 2003, doesn’t think that his life’s work is the final platform. He thinks people will get hurt walking into walls or when a dog darts across the room. He thinks the glasses will never be comfortable to wear for long periods. And that an all-virtual world is creepy. “I’m actually a Luddite. I don’t play video games. I don’t have a Facebook account,” he says. At the Tribeca Film Festival’s symposium on virtual reality this year, he warned the audience against making entertainment for virtual reality. “Do you want to be in the trash compactor in Star Wars? No, you don’t. If Jaws felt like what you just did in my lab, no one would ever go in the ocean again.” VR, he believes, is an empathy machine and should be saved for that purpose.

11. Hollywood also has had mixed reactions.

But when one VR pioneer showed virtual reality to director James Cameron—the technology-pushing cre­ator of Avatar, Titanic and Terminator—in May 2013, Cameron stated that he had no use for it. “This has very little to do with controlling the viewers’ attention,” says a colleague. “It’s not necessarily a medium for filmmakers.”

For more on VR, read the cover story and check out:

Watch the Demo That Will Make You Want Virtual Reality Right Now

This Is When Sony’s Virtual Reality Headset Is Coming Out

Here’s When You Can Buy Oculus’s Long-Awaited Virtual Reality Headset

TIME Video Games

How the Oculus Rift Could Help Xbox Crush PlayStation

Oculus Rift
Oculus Rift Oculus Rift

It's all about Windows 10

No one expected this: Oculus VR said Thursday its Rift virtual reality headset will ship with Microsoft’s Xbox One controller as the Rift’s de facto way to play games.

Yes, there’s a crazy new contraption called Oculus Touch, hyped by founder Palmer Luckey himself during Thursday’s Oculus VR presser. The Touch looks like a pair of left/right Fitbits glommed onto Wii U nunchucks. It’s at least one possible future for VR input, if Luckey has his druthers. But let’s talk about the Oculus/Xbox One gamepad partnership, because in my view, the reason it’s happening at all is pretty straightforward when you think about Windows 10.

Oculus Rift has been a PC-centric technology from the outset. Maybe that changes in half a decade and we’ll all be dongled in to our smartphones or tablets. But today, if you want to tango with the half dozen head-mounted conceptual thingies scrambling to vie for our hearts and wallets, you generally need a good ol’ fashioned computer. And what do the lion’s share of good ol’ fashioned computers run now? Microsoft Windows.

Microsoft’s Xbox One gamepad, whether you agree with Palmer Luckey’s contentious claim that it’s the best controller in gaming (“It just is,” he said, as if his words might subliminally objectify reality on the spot), is certainly the best gamepad Redmond’s crafted to date. And it’s formally part of the Windows ecosystem, driver and developer supported and backward compatible with anything that worked with the company’s old Xbox 360 controller. It’s how you game with a gamepad in Windows right now as well as how you will when Windows 10 finally arrives this summer (sure, you can jury rig Sony’s DualShock 4 PlayStation 4 controller to work with Windows, but Sony doesn’t offer its own Windows drivers).

So in hindsight, not having some sort of partnership with Microsoft ought to have been the head-scratcher. If we assume Oculus Rift’s early adopters are going to be predominantly PC gamers — and I’d bet almost anything that’s going to be the case given how not consumer-friendly as well as culturally exotic these headsets are going to be for non-geeks — then the Xbox One deal becomes a natural corollary.

 

Folding the Rift into the Xbox One ecosystem then becomes just a baby step sideways. That’s especially true when you factor in Microsoft’s plan to load Windows 10 onto its dedicated gaming system in the near future, solidifying its promise to have a single, unified operating architecture across all of its platforms (both a first for Microsoft as well as anything else in gaming).

Where the Rift-Xbox partnership goes down the road, by all means speculate freely. But it’s an unambiguous coup for Microsoft — or the Facebook-owned Oculus, depending whom you think’s the more important water-carrier.

And however well Sony’s PlayStation 4 has been doing sales-wise, the Oculus-Microsoft news has to be chilling for the company’s own VR effort, Project Morpheus, confined to Sony’s platforms. That, and given how competent HTC’s Windows-centric Vive VR headset looks already, at this point…well, Windows has been a continuous, indefatigable, interface-leaping platform, whereas the PlayStations have all been devices-of-the-moment. That Oculus is thinking about this in those terms is why you should, too. Because this is bigger than the console wars trope, and it’s why challenging Microsoft in the long term is about so much more than monthly platform sales.

TIME Video Games

Here’s When You Can Buy Oculus’s Long-Awaited Virtual Reality Headset

Inside The 2014 E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo
Patrick T. Fallon—Bloomberg/Getty Images An attendee wears an Oculus VR Inc. Rift Development Kit 2 headset to play a video game during the E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Wednesday, June 11, 2014.

Oculus is also working on its own controllers

A consumer version of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset is set to be released in the first quarter of next year, Oculus VR confirmed at a pre-E3 event Thursday. The Facebook-owned company has not yet revealed the Rift’s price, but it’s expected to cost upwards of $1,000 including a computer capable of powering the device.

Oculus Rift also announced a partnership with Microsoft that will mean players will be able to stream Xbox One games to the Rift headset via a computer running Windows 10.

The Rift will be packaged with the Xbox One controller, letting gamers control their characters through a familiar interface. However, Oculus also announced it’s working on its own controllers specifically designed for interacting with a virtual environment, though it isn’t clear if they will cost gamers extra.

The partnership between Microsoft and the Facebook-owned Oculus VR will give Microsoft a second toehold in the market for virtual and augmented reality headsets. Microsoft is also working on the HoloLens, an augmented reality headset that will work with the company’s upcoming Windows 10 software. However, where the HoloLens is being pitched as a productivity and content consumption tool, Oculus’ Thursday demonstration made it clear the Rift is primarily a gaming device.

Facebook bought Oculus VR for $2 billion in a deal that closed last summer.

 

 

TIME Virtual Reality

The Best Virtual Reality Headset Goes on Sale Early Next Year

Oculus Rift
Oculus VR Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift has put a release date on the commercial version of its device

The long-awaited commercial version of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset will begin shipping to customers in the first quarter of 2016, Oculus VR announced Wednesday. The Rift, which has been widely praised for its high level of immersion, has so far only been available in a developer’s version. Oculus will begin accepting pre-orders for the device later this year.

Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion last March in a move both surprising and a sign that virtual reality is one of the next-big ticket bets in Silicon Valley. While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has long-term plans to develop Oculus into a “communication platform,” the Rift for now remains primarily focused on gaming experiences.

“It’s a system designed by a team of extremely passionate gamers, developers, and engineers to reimagine what gaming can be,” Oculus said in a blog post announcing the new shipping window.

Further details about the commercial version of Rift are expected to be announced at E3, an annual California gaming expo set for June 16-18.

Facebook is not the only tech giant investing in VR. Sony has a virtual reality headset called Morpheus in the works for PlayStation 4, while Microsoft is taking a slightly different tack with its augmented-reality headset HoloLens. HTC and Samsung are also working on virtual reality headsets, though the latter’s product is the result of a partnership with Oculus.

TIME technology

See How Virtual Reality Could Be the Future of Photojournalism

The Enemy, a virtual reality experience, puts you in the middle of a face-to-face encounter between combatants of opposing sides

At first, if it weren’t for the contraption that makes you look half-alien, half-astronaut, The Enemy, a virtual reality experience on show at the Tribeca Film Festival, would be akin to most exhibitions.

As you don the awkward oculus rift goggles and the backpack with the umbilical cord that ties you to the operating system, photos taken in the Palestinian Territories appear on opposing sides. As you would when touring a gallery, you approach either wall, focusing your attention on the scene depicted on the first image before moving on to the next. After a few moments, portraits of two adversaries, Abu Khaled, a garrison leader for the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Gilad, an IDF soldier, replace the depictions of everyday struggles. The two men don’t stay inanimate for long. At once, they take shape right in front of you, as sophisticated holograms answering questions about violence and peace.

The virtual conversation mirrors the interactions of an actual one. Come in too close to the simulated fighter, and they’ll draw back. Shift left or right and their gaze will follow you. Take a few step back and the volume of their voice weakens. After a few minutes, once the conversation is over, they fade away, leaving you alone in an empty room. At this point, removing the high-tech gear feels like waking up from an exceptionally vivid dream: you keep a distinct memory of the experience, yet are acutely aware that it was not real.

“I wanted to know what would happen if we took the likeness of the combatants I’ve photographed off the wall and breathed life into them,” says Karim Ben Khelifa, the mastermind behind The Enemy, which received funding and support from the Tribeca Film Institute’s New Media Fund. “How would people react? How would the public engage with them? And what impact would it have on their understanding or on how much they care?”

iThe Enemy/i, a virtual reality experience, puts you in the middle of a face-to-face encounter between combatants of opposing sides
Karim Ben KhelifaPhotography consultant Stephen Mayes testing The Enemy

For the better part of the last decade, the Tunisian photographer has dedicated himself to taking portraits of foes, especially those captive to entrenched conflicts, born with the hatred of the other, such as the Israeli-Palestinian hostilities or the India-Kashmir rift. Ben Khelifa sees it as a way to make the viewer – and, hopefully, bitter rivals – see the human being behind the fighter.

“Fundamentally, as journalists, we’ve always been trying to arouse empathy so that viewers will care for a situation happening miles from their home or to others,” he says. “When I began as a photographer, I wanted to work for the most renowned magazines in order to reach the largest audience and touch the most souls. With time, I grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of results.”

It turned out that three images in a newspaper spread were not enough to bring on change. Nor were a dozen shared online. Nor even fifty or sixty bound in a book or displayed as a show. “The challenge is to devise mechanisms that will grab and hold people’s attention long enough for you to tell a complex story,” he says, two years after he had his first virtual reality experience when he joined the MIT’s Open Documentary Lab.

Virtual reality, with its potential to offer a fully engrossing experience, might just be the way, he believes, though it’s not without obstacles. Producing such an elaborate project is exorbitantly costly and requires a wide set of skills. Over 45 people have worked on The Enemy – some of whom were dedicated to rendering exclusively and with utmost accuracy skin, hair or the slightest movement.

“It is essential to make the presence of the combatant feel as genuine as possible,” says Ben Khelifa. “By reacting to the viewer’s behavior, the hologram is acknowledging his presence, which in turn, creates a cognitive reaction of reciprocity. The hologram appears more real.” So much so, that though participants could walk through the simulated fighter, none of them has done so. During a demonstration in Paris, one woman fled when the combatants appeared, unsure of whether they were going to come after her, and another turned away from Abu Khaled. She wanted to hear what he had to say, but staring the masked man in the eyes made her uneasy.

Since starting the project two years ago and basing himself on the reactions of his users, Ben Khelifa has been tweaking and fine tuning the experience, keeping it as simple and intuitive as possible. “The difficulty is that I can’t fully control how everything unfolds,” he says. “Some of it is in the hand of the user who needs to feel some agency. There’s a fine balance that needs to be achieved between directing the viewer and giving him freedom. I could add an endless amount of sensorial experiences, but that could quickly become overwhelming.”

The prototype for The Enemy is currently on view at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of the Storyscapes programming alongside other interactive experiences. Ben Khelifa hopes that within the next 20 months he will be able to add seven more duos of fighters that will interact with the viewers in different manners. He will also spend that time devising ways to make it more accessible, creating a traveling installation that could welcome more than one person at a time as well as an app version to be experienced at home.

And, he has plans to record with more accuracy the reactions of participants, monitoring their heart rate, keeping track of how close or distant to each combatant they get and noting how attentive they are. “Analyzing people’s responses will give us insights that can help us become more effective storytellers,” he says.

Karim Ben Khelifa is a freelance photojournalist and a visiting scholar at the Open Documentary Lab at MIT in Cambridge. Follow him on Instagram @karimbenkhelifa and Twitter @kbenk. Follow The Enemy on Twitter @theenemyishere.

Laurence Butet-Roch is a freelance writer, photo editor and photographer based in Toronto, Canada. She is a member of the Boreal Collective.

TIME Video Games

Terrifying Simulation Shows You What It’s Like to Be Buried Alive

Sounds fun!

Now you can experience being buried alive — for fun.

A new virtual reality game called Taphobos — which comes from the word “taphophobia,” or fear of being buried alive — will be on display this week at EGX Rezzed in London, IGN reports.

One player lies in a coffin wearing an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and a microphone, and tries to direct a second player, who’s also wearing a headset, to find the coffin. The player who’s been “buried alive” uses maps on the inside of the coffin to guide the other player.

“This combination allows you to experience what it would be like if you were buried alive with just a phone call to the outside world,” the Taphobos website said.

Here’s a look at what the game looks like:

[IGN]

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TIME Virtual Reality

Here’s How Valve Cracked Virtual Reality’s Biggest Problem

This is shaping up to be the most important year in the tumultuous, not-quite-there-yet history of virtual reality.

A number of companies, from Facebook and Samsung to Google and Microsoft, are making significant pushes into the technology, which has been a mainstay of science fiction for decades but has largely failed to materialize as a viable consumer product. The latest piece of kit, the HTC Vive announced this weekend, is the product of a collaboration between the Taiwanese phone giant and Valve, the purveyor of the most important software distribution platform on the PC, Steam.

Virtual reality, or VR, has a long tortured history. Until three years ago, the technology was more or less moribund. Then Palmer Luckey (now 22), reignited interest with a series of prototypes for a new device called the Oculus Rift, which improved significantly on the old technology by taking advantage of advances in components for phones. His company, Oculus VR, was acquired by Facebook last year for $2 billion.

Most of Oculus’ advances, which are now being adopted or emulated by the likes of Sony and Samsung, are in how images are displayed to users wearing the headset. Long story short, a VR system has to display two sets of images—one for each eye—at very fast rates or the viewer will get nauseous.

But the HTC Vive, which the companies say will be available later this year, solves the next most vexing problems: once a viewer is seeing 3D space, how do they maneuver and manipulate the environment around them. Aside from content that is compatible with VR, these are the biggest outstanding questions. Once you’re there, what can you do and how do you do it?

Early development kits for the Oculus employ a standard console controller to move around, but that can be disorienting. Sony’s Morpheus prototype for the Playstation4 uses a set of controllers that look like ice cream cones with lightbulbs on top with similar results. And Microsoft’s recently unveiled HoloLens, which projects images onto the real world, uses hand gestures and arm motions. It’s still unclear which approach will win out.

HTC says its system will come with a base station that can track a user’s movements in 3D space. The company also hinted at a specific controller, perhaps a set of gloves, to enable users to manipulate virtual objects. Details are still scant, but this could solve the problems of mobility in a simulated 3D environment.

If Valve and HTC have indeed managed to do that, virtual reality may finally be ready for prime time.

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Razer

You can even build one yourself if you're so inclined

Imagine a world in which virtual reality standards weren’t dominated by mega-billions corporations with sometimes controversial agendas. It’s not the world we live in, but PC peripheral-maker Razer wants us nudge us in that direction with something it’s dubbed OSVR, or open-source virtual reality.

On paper, OSVR is just what it sounds like: an idea for a standard that’s still just a proposition. Razer says it wants to “push the the VR gaming experience forward,” meaning it wants to plant its flag on challenge that matters most when you’re after winning hearts and wallets by delivering experiences and not just overhyped promises: developer support.

Razer

Here’s Razer’s take:

OSVR stands for Open Source Virtual Reality. It is an ecosystem designed from the ground up to set an open standard for Virtual Reality input devices, games and output with the sole goal of providing the best possible game experience in the Virtual Reality space. Supported by Industry Leaders and focused on gaming, the OSVR framework rallies gamers worldwide together to push the boundaries of VR-Gaming.

Razer’s basically pitching OSVR as an initiative to get the ball rolling on the software side, the idea being to support a flourishing ecology of hardware and software components in a harmonious VR ecosystem that even works hand in glove with Oculus Rift. If Oculus wants to be the iOS of VR, Razer’s positioning OSVR to be the Android.

Razer

If Razer’s pitch were just another rhetorical PR flourish, you might write it off as wishful thinking from a niche power player. But Razer appears to be doubling down with what it’s calling its OSVR Hacker Dev Kit, a bona fide wraparound VR headset accompanied by open-source software “that enables programming for any variety of VR technology.” What’s more, priced to move at $200, it could be $100 less expensive than Oculus’ Rift when it ships this year in June.

On paper, the headset sounds compelling: Razer claims it’s managed to work out an optics solution that reduced distortion to less than 13%, providing what the company calls “an almost perfect image.” You’ll view that image through a 5.5-inch 1920 by 1080 panel with a 100-degree field of view running at 60Hz (thus 60 frames per second)—a step down from the Oculus Rift DK2’s 75Hz. Standard features like an accelerometer, compass and gyroscope are present, but lacks positional tracking hardware (the DK2 has this), though you could remedy this with a hardware plugin.

Razer

Want to build one yourself? In keeping with open-source principles, Razer says it’ll support that, too, allowing intrepid DIY’ers to freely download the device’s 3D files, to be printed and assembled into a working headset. (In fact, the plans are available for request from osvr.com right now.)

Note that Razer isn’t the first to pose an open-source VR standard: a group called the Immersive Technology Alliance announced yesterday that it, too, wants to see open-source standards emerge for VR and beyond–the ITA’s scope sounds like it may be broader, encompassing everything from VR devices to related peripherals like cameras, sensors, phones, motion controls and so forth, though as noted by Tom’s Hardware, the ITA, like Razer, intends any such standard to be complementary to what Facebook and Oculus VR are up to, not adversarial.

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