A New Way to Read? : The Oculus Rift and Virtual Books

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.


  6 comments for “A New Way to Read? : The Oculus Rift and Virtual Books

  1. Bekka
    March 17, 2014 at 2:22 pm

    I love the idea of an immersive, interactive novel using the Rift. Interactive storytelling is something I’ve always been interested in, something that drove me towards video games as a source of story. I hadn’t even though of using the Rift for interactive novels until you brought this up and now it is something I really want to see. Though, I worry that it will continue to be overlooked, even after people realize that their expectations for the Rift might be too high. I think people may continue to see the Rift as only a gaming device and little else, sad as that may be.

  2. bmytelka
    March 19, 2014 at 1:21 am

    I think in order to have interactive novels, they have to be written specifically for the Rift, or at least adapted. It may be awe-inspiring to be aboard the Pequod hunting down the White Whale, but I feel like the novelty of the Rift would prevent readers from truly reading the book. When you’re waiting for the next interactive experience, are you really reading, or just waiting? Are you getting the deeper references and importance of the novels, or are you being overwhelmed by the beauty of everything? The Rift presents itself as an interesting tool that can branch out to many art forms, but you will have to tweak much more than just some interactivity to make the Rift a tool for reading novels. The reader will have to change the way they approach the interactive fiction.

    I’m just having a hard time wrapping my head around the concept. As I see it right now, we’ll just end up with something closer to the Stanley Parable than something more resembling a book: immersive, interactive fiction with a heavy emphasis on narration.

  3. Cameron Hodge
    March 24, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    I’ve been wondering myself the implications of something like Oculus Rift if it becomes a staple the same way monitors are. We talked about things like Zork originally being played on a dot matrix printer and how unquantifiably different the literary text of Zork becomes when you plug its output into a monitor, especially in the sense of how the player approaches their own role (presumably, the dot matrix player having a much greater sense of dread knowing that their time investment is so much greater). How would existing texts change by making the jump from monitors to VR in the same sense as jumping from dot matrix to monitors?

    Obviously we’ve got a plethora of games which can make a more-or-less fluid transition, games being the Rift’s bread and butter. But how well would other things adapt? It doesn’t seem unlike the feigned attempts at updating classic films ala Star Wars to use 3D theater projection–an interesting idea with iffy results. Certainly it offers a much wider range of opportunity for new literature being designed specifically for this type of output, but it also tries to radically alter how we perceive existing literature as well. How much would it change the, for lack of a better word, “experience” of reading a digital poem? Can something like Sea and Spar Between be adapted to use the device, moving between coordinates with the movement of the head rather than a mouse? Can it serve as a permanent replacement for traditional displays into the future, or would that lose a lot in translation?

  4. Robert
    March 24, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    I admit I haven’t been following the Oculus Rift story at all. To be honest, virtual reality doesn’t really excite me that much. Perhaps that means I should not be commenting here, but oh well. I wonder if the Oculus Rift will face a kind of Uncanny Valley effect as it tries to tell more complex stories. I doubt the Rift would replace more traditional forms of expression, as they have their own benefits. I couldn’t see Memento being done in this form, for example.

    • Steve
      March 31, 2014 at 2:52 pm

      “I couldn’t see Memento being done in this form, for example.” Well the idea behind this tech and this article isn’t so much about revisiting old stories with a different lens, but rather using a different lens to create the new stories. The Rift isn’t attempting or claiming to rewrite the rules of storytelling, it strives to change and create new experiences. Ideologically, this makes sense. The real question is whether the tech is sophisticated enough and set in the right mold to really inspire new storytelling methods. Ideally, the tech works as advertised and we can discuss what the future might bring.

      Fun fact: Facebook just bought the company. My dreams may have died anyway.

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