I was one of the lucky ones who got to see John Carmack’s virtual reality (VR) demo in a back room at E3 in 2012. This is where Carmack reignited the virtual reality discussion using a then-unknown Palmer Luckey’s Oculus Rift head-mounted display to play a custom version of Doom 3: BFG Edition.
Carmack, of course, is best known for being a programming genius, rocket scientist, and father of the first-person shooter. He and his compatriots at id Software released the revolutionary Wolfenstein 3D in 1992, and 20-plus years later FPS still dominates the charts around the globe. Needless to say, when Carmack is giving a VR demo, you go.
The demo came with a laundry list of caveats from Carmack as he discussed the shortcomings of where VR was, but you could hear the excitement in his voice as he explained the challenges and where it was going. Many of those challenges are still not solved today, but you could feel the mind of Carmack crunching the data. While elusive, the answers could be found.
I had heard the story before of how VR was going to change the world, so it was with much trepidation that I attached a duct-taped box to my face. I literally needed Carmack to make sure I didn’t fall over as I disconnected from the real world and plugged in a new set of visual and audio information to my brain. That demo wasn’t great, but it was promising. This wasn’t some 3D movie or TV gimmick; this was surprisingly immersive. But Carmack was right – the technology had a long way to go.
Since that demo, VR has been on a rocket. Oculus has been on a rollercoaster ride, from a hugely successful Kickstarter to a two billion dollar purchase by Facebook. Sony and numerous other players have joined the fight as well. VR is back.
I’m not sold on its commercial viability quite yet, but this is not the experience you remember from the past. Even with all the questions hanging out there, you can put on a head-mounted display and be transported to another world. How long can you stay there? Will it make you sick? Will you, the consumer, even care? All great questions, but it only takes five minutes plugged into a virtual space to see that VR has never been closer to what we have been sold in books and movies than it is now. If a visionary like John Carmack believes in it, you can’t help but take note.
I remember how I felt when I first saw Wolfenstein 3D. I couldn’t believe that something could look so real. And yes, by today’s standard Wolf’s graphics and level of immersion are almost comical, which is why when I look at where VR is today I can’t help but think that this time it is here to stay.