Whispering about virtual reality

A brief era is coming to a close and I'll miss it when it's gone.

After years of refinement, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset is now available for preorder. In April, it will be a real product in general circulation; your nerdiest friend will possess it, maybe.

We've been hearing about the Oculus Rift and the attendant rise of VR for a couple of years now, and totally for real this time. The Rift wasn't a vague shape under a silk sheet — there have been several development kits that anyone could buy — but it wasn't in general circulation, either. Most people's experience of the thing was secondhand: a dispatch on a gadget site; a post in a forum; a tweet. Personal narratives dominated: I walked into a secret lab and… You get some of that with any new thing, but it has been extra-abundant with VR because the essence of the technology can't be photographed or recorded on video. The only thing that can show you the inside of a VR headset is… a VR headset.

So we tell stories instead.

To me, all this breathless reportage recalled an earlier era when consumer electronics cost more money and diffused more slowly. Media wasn't as fast, either. You read about the new thing in magazines, mostly. As a child, I only experienced the tail-end of that era, but I remember well the feeling of seeing new computers pictured in MacWorld. Reading their specs over and over. Contemplating them.

I think the smartphone changed that pattern for good. The technology spread just mind-bogglingly fast, and did so entirely out in the mainstream. No time for whispers, no space for rumors. All the new models are absurdly well-chronicled: you can digitally inspect an iPhone's pores on the day of its announcement. You might not always snag the latest phone for yourself — I do not — but one of your friends does, and she is always more than happy to let you check it out.

How boring is that??

There was an issue of Nintendo Power magazine published in 1991, just before the release of the SNES, that included a fold-out poster picturing dozens of upcoming games, each of which was was granted one thumbnail. Ahem:

I treated that poster like a treasure map, staring deep into the halftone matrix, trying to divine what I could from each tiny image, deciding ahead of time which games were going to be most awesome. I mean, Darius, come on — look at that robo-fish!!

It was ridiculous and also, of course, wonderful.

Turns out, sometimes we don't really want the thing — not if we're honest with ourselves. Instead, we just want to talk about the thing.

I did strap on a friend's Oculus Rift development kit briefly, but only to experience a simple demo in which I, a real human sitting at a real desk, was whisked into the metaverse to... sit at... a virtual desk. It was pretty convincing! Still: a desk. I'm sure at some point in 2016 I'll strap on a consumer-grade VR headset — maybe even get one of my own?—and see for myself something more stimulating. And so I will participate in the closing of the era of whispers and rumors, secondhand accounts, breathless stories. I walked into a secret lab and…!

Other things remain. Magic Leap is a strange company in Florida that's building a device for augmented reality — some kind of goggles that will seamlessly insert new objects into your field of vision. People who have seen the demo say it's breathtaking. Right now, the device is a pair of lenses attached to a big pile of supporting equipment, and I get the sense it's going to be a few years before it shrinks to consumer size. We can whisper for a while longer.

January 2016, San Francisco

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