Words by Nick Taras.
Photography by Sergey Galyonkin.
As I stood atop an asteroid, mesmerised by the cobalt aura of Earth viewed through an Oculus Rift headset, my meditative state spawned only one thought: “This is what it feels like to be God.”
My “voyage” through space was the penultimate level in a five-minute simulation developed for the virtual reality console known as Rift. Designed by Californian company Oculus VR, inside the Rift goggles you’ll see something so spectacular that Facebook paid $2 billion in March 2014 to acquire it.
Put the mask on and you’ll experience a 360-degree visual display so real that your mind can’t distinguish it from reality. Combine this optical hijacking with headphones, and the Rift is a completely immersive computer-generated adventure.
With such clear definition, the occipital lobe in your brain – responsible for processing vision – tricks your mind into believing that what you’re seeing is real. For decades, futurists predicted that virtual reality would become the next big thing in technology. However, the poor visual quality found in early virtual reality models only drew attention to the oxymoron that is ‘virtual reality.’
So what?” you may be thinking. “My HD TV has killer resolution.” The difference is that you know when you’re staring at your TV screen, whereas the Rift transports you to an environment that responds to your every movement in real time. For example, when I was orbiting Earth, I tilted my head to the left and saw Mars floating in the distance. Then I faced in the opposite direction and the Moon glared back at me. Looking at my shoes, I was presented with the perforated, brown rock of an asteroid. Just like your real vision, you see something different everywhere you look.
It’s as if your brain is momentarily hijacked; your arms are visible in your lower peripheral vision, so your mind and body still feel connected, yet it’s as if your entire self is transported inside a level on a computer game.
Set for commercial release in 2015, defining the possibilities of Rift would only serve to limit it. Unlike the Xbox or PlayStation, it’s not primarily a gaming console. Oculus VR’s technology can be used for almost anything. For example, one developer painstakingly recreated Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment in its entirety by compiling screenshots of Jerry’s apartment from episodes he streamed online. Announcing Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR, Mark Zuckerberg wrote, “Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home.”
Of course, the porn industry is already balls-deep in the Rift. According to Gizmodo, “One Japanese game has you look up a girl’s skirt, [while] another has you screw the hologram pop star Hatsune Miko while she is fully clothed.”
Inside ‘The Lab’ of the digital advertising agency I work for, my colleague is setting up the Rift. This requires a computer tied to the centre of the roof, with lengthy cords connecting it to the VR device. The long cables allow you to move around the room – no bigger than an average living room – and therefore move around in your virtual environment. Attached to the wall is a camera that detects your movement. The computer’s job is to process every bit of information so the environment can effectively respond to where your head turns.
Just like a video console, different games can be played using the Rift. The simulation I’m exploring consists of five levels. First, I find myself behind a desk inside a candle-lit office. Every time I look around and glance , an item on the desk has been replaced by something else.
It all feels too much like a dream. Seeing my arms below me in my periphery, my mind knows my hands are in front of me. Yet as I try to touch the desk, they move through it. “Holy shit, I’m a ghost,” I think. “I’m fucking dead.”
Afterwards, I would realise the clever reasoning behind why this simulation is designed with such an ordinary first level. A desk symbolises your familiar, everyday life. By slowly leading you into a world that challenges your perceptions of normality, your consciousness starts to accept your new reality. This is akin to the dream world, where your mind believes nonsensical events, regardless of how silly they appear to be.
Soon after, my world dissolves and I’m lost in a sunny, green field. Imagine the Windows XP wallpaper, only you can hear the chirping of birds and insects. “Walk around,” my colleague suggests. As I can’t see what’s around me in the “real” world, I’m wary of every step. Just as I start to feel comfortable, it’s time for the next level – where the room caves in.
This level conjures a sense of claustrophobia, but is quickly replaced by the endless abyss of space. Looking down on Earth, accompanied by the low mantra-like hum of the universe – I’m not gonna lie – my eyes watered. This was fucking spiritual.
Suddenly, much to my displeasure, the universe I was standing in dissolves and the environment transitions to the top of a skyscraper construction site. I’m standing on metal framework. A steel girder extends in front of me, and I feel just like a pirate walking the plank.
“Move forward,” my colleague advises. I’m nervous. It feels too real. I try telling myself that it isn’t, but my eyes are calling bullshit on my mind. My vision wobbles as I near the edge of the girder. Without warning, the building collapses and I fall. My vision is as if I’m actually falling off a building. knees buckle, and I plunge to the ground with the building. I’m reminded of the infamous scene in The Matrix where Neo jumps off a skyscraper in a simulation and smashes into the ground. Upon awakening from the simulation, he notices that his real body is bleeding.
Neo: I thought it wasn’t real.
Morpheus: Your mind makes it real.
Such is the power of mankind’s technology, where we can not only send our species to the heavens by spacecraft, but trick ourselves into reaching them from our homes.
Oculus Rift is set for commercial release sometime this year. Until then, you will have to make do with your pirated copy of The Matrix.