CES is a miserable yearly display of modern technology that takes place in Las Vegas, Nevada - the most appropriate place for the prostitution of uninspired products sprayed with a heavy cologne of false optimism. Every major player in technology that isn’t Apple marches upon Sin City with the promise of the future in tow. This year, the future being touted is one that features televisions with 4K resolution and refrigerators that come with the latest version of Android. Not exactly 2001: A Space Odyssey.
CES wasn’t always like this. The mega technology conference used to be an introduction to the unknown and impossible. CES used to leave jaws on the floor and imaginations inspired by new possibilities. Then something funny happened. Technology captured enough of our attention to be worthy of year round journalistic treatment. Now every minor advancement in chip production, every acquisition of a lowly start-up, is discovered and transmitted to the rest of the world. There are no well kept secrets to reveal at CES anymore, all of the curtains have been peeked behind. When an over confident CEO waltzes on stage and whips the curtain open in a flourish, we can’t help but be unimpressed. Desperate PR professionals and jaded journalists roam the floors of the convention center now - one trying to impress and one tired of not being impressed.
That’s what makes the Oculus Rift so absolutely incredible. Among the sea of smart TV interfaces and connected kitchen appliances, a Kickstarter project has stolen the show. Oculus Rift was created by a man named Palmer Luckey, a self described virtual reality (VR) enthusiast. He collected enough VR headsets to determine that they all sucked and that he could build a better one. He did a hell of a lot more than that. In creating the Oculus Rift, Luckey delivered the first true taste of a future most everyone interested in technology has dreamed about for decades, even if the dreams had soured after every unfulfilled promise of a VR revolution.
The Oculus Rift is a VR headset that allows the wearer to be visually immersed into an alternate reality. It works within the constraints of a modified pair of ski goggles. There are two lenses, one for each eye, that curve the image from a relatively low resolution, 1280x800 lcd, panel (Luckey says they’re doubling that resolution in the near future). The effect is a VR experience that provides 110 degrees of vision. That’s absolutely incredible. The built in motion sensors allow you to interact in the virtual world by simply looking around like you would normally.
I wouldn't be very excited about the Rift if this is all I’d heard of the device. If they’d released a press statement or a spec sheet or a flashy advert, I would have shrugged it off a hopeless gimmick. But from my desk in Madison, Wisconsin I watched journalist after journalist get the opportunity to try the Rift for themselves, and their reactions left me with my heart in my throat - I was filled with a true excitement about the future, and not the dulled excitement of someone who follows the everyday progress of technology. As I read their statements and watched their video reactions it was easy to see this was something completely different. Their enthusiasm and shock was palpable. This was something thrilling and scary, but most of all monumental.
“I used this today and it seriously changed my life. It is the most incredible thing I have ever seen at CES” - Joshua Topolsky (The Verge)
Virtual reality isn’t a shocking new revelation. The concept has been around, even if it’s been implemented in less immersive ways. Every video game ever made is a virtual reality. The realities and how we interact with them just haven’t been interesting or relatable enough to blow us away. But, despite the frustratingly incremental improvements to graphics and high definition displays, our idea of what virtual reality would be in the future is unyielding. Virtual reality remains an inevitable in our imaginations and in our art, but our images of what it will grow to be always err on the side of extreme caution. The Matrix throws us into a dystopian hell of a world. Tron is riddled with danger after a promise of fun - The kind of ‘apple in the garden of Eden’ treatment virtual reality sees in the media we create. Where’s the optimism?
I’ve chosen to be optimistic about the Oculus Rift. Why? Because true virtual reality, despite its highly popularized pitfalls, represents the pinnacle of art.
Art, to me, is empathy. A piece of art, whether it’s a painting or a piece of music or a movie, gives the consumer of that art the opportunity to experience a part of the artist - some idea or emotion or entire world. Art isn’t an aesthetic, it’s a form of communication that takes the reins where words might fail. Virtual reality, the kind of amazing transportation to different worlds that Occulus is promising, offers empathetic communication on a level that’s amazing to imagine. An artist can create an experience that will be consumed without translation on canvas or a sheet of music. They’re there. They’re seeing and hearing and one day feeling everything the artist experienced or dreamed.
The future’s artists will create worlds you all but step foot in. The future’s JRR Tolkiens and GRR Martins won’t fill half a page with descriptions of a honeyed ham paired with a Dornish wine. They’ll sit you at the feast and you’ll smell roast and take a peek down Margaery Tyrell’s blouse before sheathing your sword and riding out into the wild and alive world of Westeros. The future’s professors won’t need to tell you how grand the Colosseum was with artists’ painted depictions and tales of ship battles. They’ll place you in a seat surrounded with the rowdy men and women of Rome and you’ll smell the blood and sweat and shit in the air.
There are those dangers, though. The dangers we fear about virtual reality that show up in our movies and our stories. The ultimate fear that the realities we’ll create will become favorable to the one we live in everyday. That is a scary thought - The very real possibility that you’ll be able craft a personal heaven and be expected to remain out of it for the bulk of your time. Virtual reality is worth that risk. The communication potential, the empathy potential, of transporting someone else into your world for them to truly experience is too great to give up. Honestly, it also seems like a hell of a lot of fun (I bet eating that apple did too).
That’s why the Occulus Rift has me more excited about the future of technology than anything I can remember. The last thing that gave me this feeling was the Sega Dreamcast. I was probably around 10 or 11, and we were waiting in line at a game store at the mall and they had a demo of the latest NFL 2K game running. My mom’s boyfriend at the time pointed up at the screen and said, “For a minute there I thought that was real” and I agreed. In the not so distant future I think we’ll be hearing a lot of that.