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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

October 18, 2014 at 8:00 PM

Virtual reality’s growing up fast

Mónica prepares to enter a world called Ikarus, created by Uber Entertainment at an expo where virtual reality games and experiences were on display. (DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

Mónica prepares to enter a world called Ikarus, created by Uber Entertainment at an expo where virtual reality games and experiences were on display. (DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

A rocket passes on my left. Glass explodes to my right. Soldiers run for cover. Then I look up to watch a car flip over me in the air.

Ahead, the monster charges its weapon and aims it right at me. Don’t look away, I tell myself. This isn’t real.

A heartbeat later I shriek, buckle, and pull off the Oculus headset. The Epic Games booth attendant takes it and smiles.

Next!

I was at the Living Computer Museum in Sodo, where 19 companies, about half of which have a local presence, gathered this month to show off their vision for a technology so otherworldly, it feels like science fiction.

Virtual reality is charging up, new and improved. When it strikes, we’re not going to know what hit us.

Forest Gibson

Forest Gibson

One of the people who knows this is Forest Gibson, a 28-year-old entrepreneur who quit his job at Deloitte Digital in August to put more time into his and co-founder Jared Cheshier’s Seattle-based VR company, Impossible Object.

At this month’s showcase, which Gibson helped organize, their booth featured a performer moving around in a motion-capture rig and bodysuit. Put on a headset, though, and the performer becomes a giant terrorizing a city or a tiny knight on a table, gesturing to you — a floating head — and looking very, very impressive.

“The industry is about to explode,” Gibson assured me over pasta in South Lake Union.

And ever since March 2013, when a friend got him a private demo by Seattle virtual-reality company VRcade, he’s been determined to be a part of it.

If you remember relics like the Virtual Boy from the 1990s, you know the virtual-reality industry fizzled the last time it thought it would boom.

But this new generation has hit the reset button. And this time, the moment seems right.

The biggest reason is the Oculus Rift. The groundbreaking virtual-reality headset began as a phenomenally successful 2012 Kickstarter project by then-19-year-old California developer Palmer Luckey.

When Facebook acquired Oculus VR for $2 billion this summer, tech heads turned and Luckey seemed destined to become for this generation of virtual reality what Mark Zuckerberg has become for social media — its T-shirt and jeans godfather.

Then there’s access. Cheap development kits, free game-design engines and the miniaturization of sensor technology advanced by the smartphone arms race have brought the cost of tinkering with virtual reality way, way down.

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 4.25.37 PM

Gibson and Cheshier are self-funding their company, stocking it not only with the $350 Oculus headsets that are all but standard but also with an arsenal of gadgets so experimental that many of them — ordered from Kickstarter projects — haven’t even shipped yet.

The whole industry, really, is still in the warehouse. You can’t buy an Oculus headset on the consumer market — yet. The best games are just demos. In fact, if you’re not a developer or a devoted industry follower, you have little reason to play around with this stuff.

But you have every reason to be excited. And maybe a little freaked out.

“Excuse me. Do you need help knowing where to go?”

Back at the Seattle VR Showcase, the voice of the Oculus booth attendant snaps me out of it.

“No, I’m fine,” I say, embarrassed, my head snapping forward, my fingers back on the controls that maneuvered my character, a fox, through the virtual landscape of a game called “Lucky’s Tale.”

Above me, hanging from a tunnel roof, is a pretty overhead light I’d looked up and stared at, apparently for a while.

“Presence” is a sacred term in virtual reality, its holy grail. It’s the difference between a successful VR experience and the most immersive IMAX movie, 3-D glasses and all. It’s your brain actually believing you’re somewhere else.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That’s one of my favorite quotes from sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke.

If the new virtual reality doesn’t already achieve presence, it’s getting close. And it feels just as Clarke said. Magic.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. This week she goes on maternity leave to welcome her second child. She’ll be back in January.

Comments | More in Column, Entertainment, Gaming, Seattle

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