I, like so many eager others, have yet to experience the capabilities of the highly anticipated, head-mounted virtual reality device known as the Oculus Rift. Initially announced and profiled back in 2012, the Rift has seen drastic improvements to its tech and functionality since its initial display, causing fans and many in the gaming industry to dream of different intuitive uses for the device and how it could change the way people experience entertainment and art. Last year, I blogged about the Rift for my Games and Culture class, arguing that while it’s easy to get excited and dream big on the new device, history has shown that jumps this big in technological expectation often flounder. Despite this, I noted that VR was a major trend back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, well before the technology was there for any sort of “true” virtual reality experience despite misleading advertisements claiming otherwise. These cash grabs somewhat soiled the name of consumer virtual reality and largely put an end to its development for entertainment purposes. Fast-forward 10+ years, and technology has made remarkable, exponential jumps, making affordable, consumer virtual reality a more realistic option. With rave reviews coming from every Oculus Rift showing, the gaming industry is already growing to accept the Rift as a legitimate device, as multiple games already support it for the lucky few who ordered developer packs a number of months ago, and developers and various creative individuals have demonstrated or publicly dreamed on big possibilities.
So, basically, though the Rift has yet to fully prove itself, the capability it has already demonstrated opens up a staggering array of possibilities. While many projects and experiments are already in the works, we won’t know the extent of the Rift’s potential until it’s fully released to the public and widely experimented with. After working through a number of different, unique, text-based works of electronic literature, I was naturally inclined to revisit the Rift: How could it alter not just the way we experience art, but something less immediately obvious, the way we read?
I became somewhat giddy at the idea when first pondering it, imagining the world of possibilities and potential of a virtual reality reading experience. One of the popular recent Rift demonstrations places the player in the middle of a stunningly realistic movie theatre. After a time, a movie begins playing on the screen, notably causing many testers to drop their jaws. Further remarkable is when the images on the movie begin to interact and move beyond the common limitations a screen. Importantly, the movie isn’t simply projected onto the screen of the Rift; the player is meant to feel a realistic sense of place, thus causing the whole event to feel more immersive. In this case, the Rift is playing on the conventions of film more so than as simple art form, but as a realistic experience that an individual experiences; it’s not just a movie but a person watching a movie. The effect has drawn rave reviews from every test showing, leading me to wonder: why not a person reading a novel? The basic limitations of the novel, such as linearity and static images would be entirely removed. We could read a Rift book of a child walking through a garden, perhaps entirely surrounded by stunning, detailed foliage and flowers. As we read, the breeze sway and blow calmly through the fields, the tone and content of the scene slowly shifting with the setting and mood of the story. Or we could have true branching stories, with different endings and paths dynamically programmed in, causing readers to truly read and experience a book in a way more personal than ever before. Offering writers a dynamic way to simultaneously work with all of these mediums through the sophisticated, immersive tech of the Oculus Rift will likely lead to games and art that do things entirely differently than what’s been done before, maybe even a small step into the future of storytelling. The phrase “interactive fiction” would likely need reassessment.
It’s interesting that, with all of the dreaming on the Oculus Rift going on right now, we haven’t heard more of this sort of thing. In fact, even with a fairly heavy search of the concept, the only mentions of Rift books is a small note about the potential for Rift pop-up-like books by a random user on a message board. My guess is that people are still dreaming a bit too high on the Rift, still thinking it’ll change the world. When the dust settles, smaller ideas like these will be where the Rift actually leaves its mark.