Virtual reality: Is it finally ready for the mass market?

Nick Wingfield / New York Times News Service /

Published Feb 27, 2013 at 04:00AM

IRVINE, Calif. — Virtual reality is one of many inventions that never seemed to make the leap from science fiction to mass-market product.

Again and again, headsets that promised to immerse people in wondrous, three-dimensional worlds have bombed with the public — held back by high prices, ungainly designs and crude graphics.

But now the bonanza of cheap, high-quality components created for the mobile electronics market, coupled with some technology innovations by a Southern California startup called Oculus VR, could bring within reach the fantasy of many a video gamer: a virtual reality headset that costs just a few hundred dollars and puts players inside games like no television set can.

Resembling an intimidating pair of ski goggles, the Oculus Rift, as the headset is called, envelops the vision of people who wear it in vivid, three-dimensional images. The sensation is like watching an IMAX screen that never ends. A snap of the head to the left instantly shifts the perspective inside the game in the same direction.

That connection between a player’s point of view in the game and the real world makes the experience feel more natural when, say, the game character is surrounded by a group of armored knights.

The company’s design, which is about to be delivered to game developers, is already creating buzz among industry veterans and battle-scarred believers in virtual reality.

Cliff Bleszinski, a former game designer at Epic Games who led the creation of its “Gears of War” series, said that the first time he wore the Rift headset, “I gazed into the abyss and the abyss gazed back at me.”

“The next big thing isn’t always a brand-new technology that you never heard of,” Bleszinski said. “It’s this thing that existed 10 years ago and quietly got better.”

Despite its missteps in the consumer market, virtual reality has become commonplace for a number of industrial and military applications, where the high cost of headsets — from $1,000 to $50,000 — has been less of an impediment. Hospitals use the headsets to train surgeons, while the U.S. Army has used virtual reality to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, in part by exposing soldiers to short simulations of combat.

The mass market has been far more elusive, in large part because the components in the headsets were too costly.

Many of the crucial parts in the Oculus Rift are the same components found inside smartphones and tablets, including the headset’s 7-inch display and its sensors for detecting head movements. Because those parts are already being pumped out in enormous volumes in factories in China, Oculus can create a product that is likely to end up costing consumers between $200 and $300.

“I’ve said this before, so you can’t totally trust me on this, but really, really I believe this is the time,” said Mark Bolas, an associate professor at the University of Southern California and a longtime virtual researcher who is an adviser to Oculus VR.

Oculus is mum on when it will ship a version for consumers, hinting that its target is next year.