An affordable, realistic virtual reality game system has eluded developers for decades.
Previous attempts yielded clunky nausea-inducing disappointments — until a plucky start-up called Oculus VR raised $2.4 million on Kickstarter two years ago and was bought by Facebook for $2 billion in March.
Now, Oculus and its 21-year-old founder, Palmer Luckey, are featured on the covers of Wired and Popular Mechanics magazines.
Luckey started working on the game system, called the Rift, as a teenager in his Long Beach garage. This week, the latest version had developers and fans lining up at the E3 video game conference at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
"The Oculus Rift is as big a change as computers getting connected to the Internet," said Brian Shuster, chief executive of Utherverse, whose software is used to create virtual reality environments. "I think it's a tectonic shift."
Virtual reality uses computer power to create artificial interactive environments that surround a human being, giving the sense of entering an alternate world, usually by donning special helmets or goggles. VR is being used in a variety of disciplines, from surgical training to flight simulation. And, of course, games.
The Rift is notable because it is billed as the first affordable system that doesn't make its wearer sick. Computers have been powerful enough to provide an engaging virtual experience, but not fast enough to keep up with the human body's sense of equilibrium. A narrow range of vision added to the vertigo.
Oculus uses new algorithms to better comport with the human sense of motion, and magnifying lenses to widen the angle of vision. Oculus' only major competitor right now is Sony, which displayed its Project Morpheus virtual reality system at E3. Both systems are expected to go on sale next year.
Developer kits of the Rift now sell for $300, and the consumer model will likely carry a similar price tag.
Resembling a bulky pair of ski goggles, the screen wraps around a user's eyes, immersing the player fully into the world of the video game. Technology that tracks the movement of a player's head and eyes lead to instant reactions within the game.
Many developers see virtual reality as a breakthrough for new kinds of first-person games. Game developer Paul Bettner says the Oculus system also lends itself to the kind of classic 3-D platforms similar to Mario 64.
"When I first saw the iPhone, it was so cool and I had make games for it," he said. "It's the same thing for the Oculus."
Bettner — who created the popular mobile game "Words with Friends" and worked with Microsoft's design studio on games such as "Halo Wars" and "Age of Empires" — was at E3 showing off his upcoming title "Lucky's Tale," which is exclusively designed for the Rift.
Though the gameplay in "Lucky's Tale" is similar to other 3-D games, playing with the Rift headset takes it to another level. Rather than push a controller joystick to move the in-game camera, players can tilt their heads to control their view, lean forward to take a closer look at a character or just let their eyes wander around the brightly colored cartoon environment.
Oculus is also opening doors for Control VR, a Los Angeles company that is developing a gesture-controlled glove and upper-body apparatus that work with the Rift.
Using specially wired gloves and a chest harness, E3 attendees were able to move their arms, hands and fingers with the movements nearly instantly tracked in-game. Though Control VR was showing a basic moon landing demo, designer Alex Knoll said the technology could be used for cheaper animation of human models and other non-gaming applications.
The technology behind the gloves has been in development for about two decades, but the Oculus system has broadened Control VR's horizons.
"If anyone is still not sold on virtual reality being the future of communication and entertainment, they should be sure of it now," said Control VR chief executive Alex Sarnoff.