Friday TechMunch: The Rift Observation

“The Oculus Rift is the coolest product in the world right now.”

Invented by 21 year old Palmer Luckey, a man as fortunate as his name, the Oculus Rift is the oh-so-close answer to a decades-old promise of virtual reality (VR). Snapped up by Facebook in March for a cool $2bn, VR might have finally reached the point where investment and mainstream interest have reached critical mass.

Late in March, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg broke the hearts of VR geeks and gamers everywhere when he announced the Oculus acquisition and told the world “after games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences.” Zuckerberg may have been thinking purely about education, travel and immersive movies when he said this, but what flashed immediately through the minds of many fans was less altruistic. The innovative, crowd-funded Oculus could end up as nothing more than a new destination for in-your-face advertising and brand campaigns. Marketers of the world take note.

However, while the most passionate VR fans, and those early Kickstarter funders (like Minecraft creator, Markus Persson) would probably have made the case for Oculus staying independent and building a new ecosystem from the ground up, this would surely have been a path to failure. Palmer Luckey had barely taped his first pair of home-made goggles together and smashed through his Kickstarter aims, when the likes of Sony, Samsung and Valve all entered the fray. VR is set to become a major industry for the tech and gaming titans to fight over, but Facebook’s influence could well be the reason it becomes mainstream.

The headsets will start to hit the shelves (most likely next year) and the applications will be practically limitless. We’ll use it to game, to go places, to build houses and virtual worlds, to teach and train and yes, we’ll probably use it to simulate murder, sex, and maybe even talk to the dead.

One game launched last year for the new platform, Disunion, simulates the experience of being decapitated by a guillotine. As for the adult entertainment industry – so often the deciding factor in whether or not new technologies kick off – only last month SugarDVD announced it’s already working with motion-capture studios in Los Angeles to generate original, VR-optimized content.

In terms of the more inventive gaming element, AAAAA!!! – A Reckless Disregard for Gravity, tasks players with base-jumping off the side of buildings, giddily scoring points as you make death-defying leaps through obstacles. Gorily entertaining Surgeon Simulator works surprisingly well in the Rift and if you’ve ever watched a space battle in Star Wars and wished you were really a part of it, then Elite: Dangerous looks like it could be as close as it gets.

In only five years, Palmer Luckey has gone from part of a very small community of VR fans, tinkering in his parent’s garage with head-mounted displays, to being the face of the very real VR revolution. Having breathed life into an old, clunky relic from science fiction, he’s created a product that will capture the imagination, mine included, from the moment it launches.