Putting the ‘Real’ Into Virtual Reality

The Oculus Go headset brings VR to the masses.

The Oculus Go offers virtual reality experiences at a budget price.
The Oculus Go offers virtual reality experiences at a budget price.

For more than 25 years, virtual reality has been technology’s Next Big Thing.

The promise is tantalizing: virtual worlds! The ability to interact with a computer-generated 3-D universe! The potential for VR as a tool for surgery, industrial simulations and sheer entertainment made it look like a multibillion-dollar jackpot.

But the problem with virtual reality has been, well, reality. The dream outstripped small details like technology and cost. Cumbersome early versions of virtual reality technology tethered users to bulky computers. The “reality” they showed was visually cartoonish.

The first really big breakthrough in VR came with the advent of the smartphone, which solved several problems at once: compact, high-quality screens that could be dropped into a simple headset, decent graphics capabilities and, crucially, location tracking that gave the virtual world a sense of place. Google’s 10-buck Cardboard, encasing an Android or iPhone, gave millions their first decent glimpse of virtual reality in 2014, though it was hardly immersive.

Higher-end systems like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive provide much better, clearer VR experiences, but they still require a high-powered PC and tracking sensors, and they cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. Virtual reality had come out of the lab, but the good stuff was still the province of high-end gamers and researchers.

Now comes the Oculus Go, from Facebook, a standalone VR headset that doesn’t need to be hooked up to anything but wifi. Basically, it takes the guts of a smartphone and packs them into a headset. It’s almost as good as the high-end setups — for under $200.

The Go runs much of the same software as the higher-priced versions — the standard VR fare of simulated roller coasters, dinosaur lands, haunted houses, up-close-and-personal sports events, museum tours, fighting and painting simulations and the like. It can even surf the web or watch Netflix movies. (And yes, there’s porn. In VR it’s just as tawdry but … more vivid.) But perhaps the killer app for virtual reality still remains to be found.

The Go’s visual quality is convincing, if not quite full HD resolution in most cases. But the headset provides an excellent immersive experience. You can’t move around much — sitting in a chair for a roller coaster feels like movement — but you get a handheld controller that can be used as a pointer or simulated gun or paint brush, depending on the app. (Apps range from free to a few dollars apiece.)

Does Oculus Go mean that virtual reality is finally, truly, the Next Big Thing? Maybe. But it’s definitely going to be the first big thing on any geek’s holiday wish list.

Oculus Go

    Mark Potts was the founding managing editor of Alta.
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