For the last two years in a row, the Oculus Rift has been our choice for the Best in Show at CES. It has gone from a scrappy startup to a $2 billion acquisition by Facebook. At the same time Samsung and Google have made big announcements about a push into augmented and virtual reality. We haven't seen VR's killer product arrive yet, but a lot of people believe it's going to happen, and soon.
So that raises the question, how will we create the films, games, and experiences that make virtual reality worthwhile. What are the building blocks that will help this new art form thrive? At CES Unveiled yesterday, I saw one interesting example. Arkamys is a 15-year-old company that most people have never heard of; it specializes in things like car audio. But this being CES, it was eager to show off the ways in which its technology can be used for more cutting edge consumer applications. So its booth featured a demo for creating a 360-degree audio-visual experience that allows you to "step inside" another person's perspective, the kind of media that is especially compelling on something like an Oculus Rift.
"Do you remember that movie Strange Days?" asked Mikaël Breton, a senior product manager with Arkamys. "That is how we imagine the future of television and gaming. You will step inside the world, and it will be as if you are that actor, that athlete." For its demo at CES, Arkamys strapped me into an Oculus Rift and headphones. I was on a court, playing some one-on-one basketball. The sound and video were incredibly well-synced with my position. If the player was behind me, then moved to my side, and I turned my head to track him, or turned the other way away from him, the sound of the ball bouncing off the hardwood moved in a way that felt perfectly natural and viscerally real.
"Basically we are testing the market," Breton says. "Maybe this will be like 3D TVs and nothing will come of it. A big excitement and then no content." Our own Nilay Patel believes that VR won't be a real force in consumer tech for years to come. But the fact that Oculus has impressed so many with its hardware, and has Facebook's billions of users and dollars now backing it, is enough to inspire companies to experiment with making media for that platform, even though it has yet to be released to the public. Not to mention the fact that other massive companies like Samsung are already pushing 360-degree videos. "I think if you follow science fiction, you always felt things would move this way," says Breton.
"VR is a major new medium on the scale of photography and film. At first, people will try porting things over from other platforms like game consoles. But the best content will be created for specifically for VR," says Chris Dixon, a tech investor who backed Oculus Rift. "In the early days of film people had to learn a new visual grammar — close ups, establishing shots, etc. It will be the same for VR. We'll also need new tools for creating VR content. Game programming tools will be useful in some contexts but we'll also need new tools."
Arkymas has always been an eccentric company. It published videos on this "imagination room" and "holophonic ball experiment" long before the Oculus Rift came on the scene. What's great about Oculus is that it has legitimized all these wild ideas again, emboldening people to try out technology that hasn't been seen as commercially viable since the '90s. Now all those crazy gadgets makers are back, and that's something that is making this CES especially exciting.