I cannot remember the first time I made a cellphone call or sent a text message. I cannot remember the first time I used a computer or a tablet.
But I will never forget the moment I stepped into virtual reality for the first time.
For me, that moment took place in April 2013. I tried on the Oculus Rift, and it became clear that this was a game-changing technology that will have a huge impact on our lives, and will change the course of life for future generations.
This past weekend, at the Oculus Connect conference in Hollywood, California, I was fortunate enough to try the latest Oculus Rift "Crescent Bay" demo kit, and the following morning, at around 4 AM, I still can't sleep. I can't sleep because I spent some time with a very friendly space alien who felt completely lifelike to me. If you haven't tried the Rift, you might be thinking, “So you saw an alien movie, what’s the big deal?” No - this was no movie - this was a completely lifelike experience, where I was inside another world, with an actual alien (reminiscent of E.T.) and the life I knew here in the real world ceased to exist. I looked at this space alien, and he looked at me. I took a step towards the alien and he followed my every move with his eyes, inquisitively. I leaned in to look at this creature up close, just inches away from his face -- and it still looked completely real. I even laughed out loud, with the wonderment of a child, realizing that I’d never forget the first time I hung out with an alien.
In a matter of a few minutes, I was swept away into an entirely new sphere: a deadly combat zone where bullets whizzed by my head. I was chased by an aggressive T-Rex who scared the living snot out of me. I stood on the edge of a building structure in a grimy, futuristic cityscape, and was unwilling to take a step forward, because my body, my heart, and the sweat of my palms told me not to step off the building.
At some point, virtual reality is so accurate, so compelling that it accomplishes what Oculus Rift CEO Brendan Iribe described to an audience of several hundred as “Presence.” Presence within virtual reality is when, on a basic subconscious level, your brain reacts to the stimuli you see and hear as if it is real. Presence is when the subconscious has accepted the new reality, and the subconscious reactions of excitement, fear, joy, curiosity, etc. spill out of your body instinctively. This latest Oculus Rift demo kit has now incorporated 360 audio in addition to 360 visual.
After going through ten or so demonstrations that Oculus had prepared for us, each one of them separate lifelike experiences, I briefly returned to the cityspace, to the edge of the building. As I stood on the edge of that building, my body still refused to let me take a step off the ledge. Yes, of course, I knew I was standing in a safe room with a funny-looking device on my head, and in no harm's way, but it didn't matter. Each time I tried to take a step, my brain stopped me. You simply don’t walk off the side of a building. Your brain doesn’t let you do it. (Little secret about me: My biggest fear is a fear of heights. Ironically, I live on the 6th floor of a highrise building and love the view, but I rarely go out on the balcony.) I finally forced myself to take a step off, my brain and my subconscious still fighting me, my heart rate rising, while beads of sweat formed on my palms. What an incredible and surreal experience it was.
Virtual reality is real, and the applications of the technology are as far-reaching as you can possibly imagine. In the coming days, we will take a deeper look at the impact of virtual reality now and in the future. Stay tuned for Part 2.