A year after Facebook launched the modern era of virtual reality by releasing the Oculus Rift, the genre is still trying to find its footing. Much of the promise of transporting gamers to interactive worlds has been realized, but software releases have slowed to a drizzle, bringing the console and its enthusiasts to a crossroads.
Still, the Rift remains synonymous with cutting-edge, viable VR, outclassing low-tech visor-only offerings such as the Galaxy VR and Google Cardboard. It's also surpassed the systems that match or surpass its tech -- the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR -- in mindshare and system exclusives.
The December release of the $200 Oculus Touch controllers, however, was a needed shot in the arm that will likely spark new development efforts going forward. The addition of the tactile sensors vastly improves the immersion over the Xbox One controller that's included in the $500 starter bundle.
Players need a computer with considerable memory and graphics card heft to get going -- most laptops don't live up to the standard, and Mac users are out of luck for now. But those who can foot the considerable bill to step into the world of Rift's VR will find it nothing short of mesmerizing. To try the Rift is to become an evangelist for the console and wondrous frontier of interactive wonders it represents. In addition to gaming, you can also scope out movies in virtual wall-sized displays.
Games such as the episodic space adventure "Downward Spiral: Prologue" take advantage of the Rift's technology, plunging you into a zero-gravity adventure, making you feel as though you can float around to solve puzzles and confront enemies at your whim. Traditional gaming conventions such as solo and co-op campaigns, as well as multiplayer death matches, spice things up.
A user-friendly interface encourages you to link your Facebook account to your Oculus setup, allowing you to link up with friends in shared VR spaces to enrich the experience. Xbox One owners get considerably more software to work with, because the Rift supports streaming from the device.
Education may be an even more promising road for VR to take than gaming. The opportunity to transport players into everything from historical situations to museums and global travel hotspots is tantalizing.
Indie publishers are shouldering much of the VR load for now, with the big hitters such as EA and Ubisoft taking baby steps until the install base reaches the critical mass it takes to plunge the necessary huge resources into AAA games.
Of course, the waiting game only gets longer unless Rift sales pick up steam and get into more households. As prices drop, software updates increase the Rift's capabilities, developer flex their creative muscles and more games start to emerge, the Rift's promise will edge over from virtual nature to actual reality.