The Oculus Rift started life as a KickStarter project: a hardware hacker named Palmer Luckey had been collecting Virtual Reality (VR) hardware. You may remember VR: it was big in the 90’s, with all sorts of high-end, high-cost rigs under development that promised true immersion in virtual worlds. At the time, the idea of a virtual world was captivating to many people. The media were still using phrases like information superhighway to describe the Internet, and The Lawnmower Man had brought VR into the public consciousness. Some of the VR systems that were available then were hugely expensive and elaborate, but their value eroded rapidly—like that of all computing hardware. Luckey described finding one such headset for $89 on eBay—a headset whose original price was $100,000.
Much of the investment in VR kit came from defense funding at that time, so the price of VR headsets was less of an issue than it otherwise would have been. Size was a bigger issue. The technology of the time didn’t lend itself to being small and nimble. Some headsets were huge, requiring elaborate rigs to prevent the user getting neck strain and limiting the headsets’ potential for home use. There were brief forays into the commercial market—most notably by Nintendo in 1995, with its Virtual Boy headset. Because of its high price and the discomfort users experienced when wearing it, the Virtual Boy was a commercial failure. It was also a technical failure: a lack of head-tracking capabilities meant that players could not truly immerse themselves in virtual worlds, limiting the sense of a being in a virtual world.
However, much of the hardware that is necessary to make VR a workable and cost-effective proposition has become much more accessible over the past few years. With the rise of smartphones, high-quality small displays, accelerometers, and other hardware that is necessary to make VR effective, prices have come down, while at the same time, the devices have become many times more capable.
Oculus Rift initially aimed to raise $250,000 in venture funding, to create a number of developer kits. It beat that goal by an order of magnitude, raising almost $2.5M. Overall, Oculus VR has raised $16M in funding, and it is one of the most successful and eagerly awaited KickStarter projects.
At the Eurogamer Expo, I experienced a standard VR demonstration: a medieval rollercoaster with big drops, radical shifts to either side, and broken or missing tracks. (You can see the demo on YouTube.) The chap using the headset before me was clearly affected by the experience. He was clutching his seat so tightly that his knuckles were white. So it was with a little trepidation that I sat down and strapped on the headset. My first impressions were good. The headset is lightweight, and while I’d probably have concerns about wearing it for an extended period of time, it would be comfortable for at least half an hour. Even on an early release, standard-definition headset, the picture was clear, and the sound quality was good.