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Virtual reality makes a comeback with Oculus Rift

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(Credit: Oculus)

Virtual reality got a bad reputation in the early 1990s. Proponents overpromised and underdelivered, with crummy graphics and headache-inducing headgear -- not to mention prices that were so stratospheric, there was no way anyone could afford to buy a system.

It was a technology that became an afterthought -- until game design guru John Carmack took an interest, at least. During the E3 conference in June, Carmack showed off the Oculus Rift headset, a virtual reality device he helped to create using (no joke) Oakley ski goggles, duct tape, and spare miniaturized rocket parts he had lying around his shop.

Flash forward to last week, when Carmack's partners launched a Kickstarter for the Oculus Rift, hoping to raise $250,000. In less than 5 days, gamers have pledged over $1.3 million — and excitement isn't slowing down.

The Rift is a lot fancier than the Frankenstein headset Carmack initially created. Packing a much wider field of view, lower latency and higher resolutions than comparably-priced VR sets, it's being hailed as something of a breakthrough.

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(Credit: Darren Gladstone)

We got some hands-on (eyes on?) with Carmack's cobbled together version during E3, and suffice to say, the experience of using the Rift itself is unlike anything you might have tried in the past. It puts you inside the game in a way that redefines immersion. Look right, and the view seamlessly shifts right. Look up and the view adjusts. Fuse that with Doom's horror-centric gameplay and you'll find yourself jumping a lot more than you did with the original game.

Speaking of which, the Oculus Rift will be compatible with the Doom 3 BFG edition coming out later this year (Kickstarter supporters who contribute $300 or more will get the headset and a copy of the game), and during the Quakecon convention, Carmack noted that Doom 4 will support the technology as well.

It may not end there. Markus 'Notch' Persson, the creator of mega-hit Minecraft, has expressed interest in the device. Valve Software owner/president Gabe Newell and Epic Games' Cliff Bleszinski are both vocal supporters of Oculus, and while neither has committed to building a specific game that supports it, it's hardly out of the realm of possibility.

Carmack's the most visible face of Oculus, but he's not the founder of the project. Palmer Luckey launched the company and designed the system.

"What we're doing at Oculus is trying to create the world's best virtual reality headset designed very specifically for gaming," says Luckey. "There's a lot of great head mounted displays out there, but they're all really, really expensive — up to over $100,000. What the Rift does [is] it makes a high end virtual reality experience available to the average gamer."

It's still very early -- and there's currently only one game supporting the technology -- but it's possible that virtual reality may go from being a punchline to a true evolutionary step.

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