I had a lot of experiences this past week: I shot birds out of the sky with my eyes, my fingers were on fire, I flew on top of a drone over the arctic and looked into the jaws of a dragon.
I did all this without leaving San Francisco, at the 2015 Game Developers Conference, where the people who make the video games we love to play come to the city by the thousands to check out the latest hardware and software for making games.
Many others were also trying the latest in virtual reality, a technology that’s been talked about since the 1980s, but may finally be on its way to becoming a reality in the real world.
Among my experiences was standing in the lair of the dragon Smaug from the Hobbit films, surrounded by gold coins. He descended upon me and opened his massive jaws. It was actually frightening because no matter which way I turned my head it looked as if I was standing in the lair. That’s part of what’s so compelling about virtual reality. As long as you’re wearing the goggles, you are immersed in a different 3-D reality.
Kim Libreri, the CTO of Epic Games who helped create the Hobbit VR experience, says the short visit to the Smaug’s lair was an experiment.
“One of the interesting things about virtual reality is that it’s sort of this hybrid medium between a game and a movie,” Libreri says.
Libreri says they realized they had to change the dialog a bit if it was to work as an immersive experience.
“If we’d said you are Bilbo you would have felt a little bit weird because you would have heard this voice talking back to Smaug,” he says, “and it would have been like ‘hold on!’ I’m me. I’m not Bilbo.'”
This particular experiment used the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift — the company that was purchased last year by Facebook for $2 billion. But there were many other headsets on display at the conference.
A Swiss company called MindMaze has a headset that can drop a layer of virtual reality on top of the real thing. I was able to put them on, and when I looked at my real hands it seemed as if there were flames coming out of my finger tips.
MindMaze CEO Tej Tadi grabbed my hand for a moment and his hands were on also fire. In a game, this could be used to give me the power to shoot flames at a city with my fingers.
Tadi says his headset is making an important technological leap — seeing your actual hands — which some of his competitors haven’t done yet.
“Just by getting your body into the picture, into these virtual worlds, where you body is your controller versus just joysticks, which is artificial; you can just use your hands as you would in the real world,” Tadi says. “That opens up a whole new way of interacting with games.”
And this is the conference where those new ideas are shared with the people making the games of the future.
Tim Sweeney, who founded Epic Games, thinks virtual reality is kind of where smartphones were over a decade ago. Just look that technology is now compared to the first iPhone — and that wasn’t long ago.
“I think we’re on track now where they’re going to be such enormous improvements every few months in the hardware and in the software and in the media itself,” Sweeney says. “It’s a continuous revolution from here onward.”
Of course, this could all be a lot of hype. Remember 3-D TV? If you don’t, that’s OK. It required wearing silly glasses in front of your TV and never quite caught on. But analysts think VR is much more compelling.
Last year, in addition to the $2 billion Facebook paid for Oculus, investors put another half a billion dollars into virtual reality, and analysts think there is a real world future for the technology. Unfortunately, it’s likely to be at least a year before most consumers get to try it.