by Chris Knetzer
Sweat dripped down my neck as I clutched my crossbow. Every noise, every peripheral movement sending subtle signals down my spine- and then …a huge winged reptile swooped toward me, a mighty pterodactyl, to be exact. It was huge and angry,(not to mention pixelated). I frantically aimed my crossbow, fired a wild shot, and missed completely. I reloaded, giddy with excitement and fear. Before I knew it, the leathery-winged assailant grabbed me by the shoulders and hoisted me into the sky. I was soaring through the air, looking down on myself in an out of body experience. I’d lost all control, my head was spinning. Then, it let go and I plummeted to the checkerboard floor below.I thought I was going to be sick, but I wouldn’t shame myself before my clan. I hit the ground, seemingly no worse for wear, so I stood to see where the beast had fled…and was shot in the back. I just hunted (using that term loosely) my first dinosaur. This abysmal failure, in a game called Dactyl Nightmare, marked my first VR experience. I was motion sick, my neck hurt from supporting headgear that outweighed my actual head, and my hair was drenched in my own sweat. I was hooked.
To say virtual reality never took off is an understatement. It died multiple ignominious deaths. Once every technological generation a new champion would emerge, only to oversell what was possible and assume people would endure physical pain for a fleeting illusion of immersion. VR wasn’t just a failure: it was a punchline, a universal symbol of technological novelty with no feasible utility. This was a playground for madmen and dreamers, a sun-scorched hellscape of failure and sunk-capital that rightly scared away all but the most speculative investors. That is, until John Carmack, founder of legendary Id software, left his own company and hired on with a little Kickstarter startup called Oculus. Oculus was yet another wild shot at the [figurative] pterodactyl no one had yet come close to hitting: home VR.
Fast forward to 2016, and we’re now mere months away from what we once thought was impossible. Oculus Rift will be first, but hot on their heels are names not to be underestimated, including the likes of Microsoft (Hololens), Sony (Playstation VR), Samsung (Gear VR) and even Steam (Vive) promising consumer VR products within the coming year. For people like me, a generation teased by giant headgear and raised with words like “Holodeck” in our cultural milieu, it seemed like we could hope again. ‘This is it! The revolution is here!’ I held my breath, unbelievably excited to finally see the day I could get my hands on this modern wonder!
Then, the cost was revealed.
The Oculus headset alone will be $599, and few of us have the $1500 worth of GPUs, CPUs, and power supplies to power this dual-screened beast. I thought we’d been promised a $300 price point. It felt like a kick to the gut. I was heartbroken.
As I combed the gaming and tech media, I found stories of iteration upon iteration of Rift prototypes that never saw the light of day. Mostly, the determination to ‘do it right’ seemed to be the major stumbling block. Stories proliferated of reporters who had tried what could barely be called games* from developers that insisted that theirs the real deal.
I read stories from developers, whom I assumed would be devastated by a price point out of mass market reach, but were instead elated that Oculus did what it needed to do to make VR work, really work, for the first time. This isn’t Dactyl Nightmare or Virtual Boy. This isn’t another dead end. They aren’t just selling a product, they’re building an industry.
There’s still no word on price from Oculus’ competitors, but speculation is that if they are cheaper, it won’t be by much. It turns out doing something right isn’t easy or cheap, but it does look like they did it right. The price is going to hurt, and you know what? We’re going to pay it, for the same reason a sweaty sore nauseated nine year old wanted to get right back in line twenty years ago: “It’s worth it!”
* Really just glorified tech-demos.