RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And if you haven't experienced virtual reality or VR yet, you may well get your chance in the coming year. New headsets are hitting the market, and they will let users experience everything from travel to games, news and shopping. NPR's Laura Sydell looks at whether that will get consumers to spend a few hundred dollars to buy a VR headset.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Brian Blau has watched dozens of people don a virtual reality headset for the first time.
BRIAN BLAU: When they put it on, you can just really see the light bulbs go off. They get it right away. It was in the first minute or two. They turn their head around; they instantaneously realize, like, wow, I am transported.
SYDELL: Blau is an analyst with Gartner, and he's bullish on VR. After having my own first experience with VR nearly two years ago, I understand what he's saying. I tried a recreation of HBO's "Game Of Thrones." I got a ride - virtually - on the winch elevator up the Castle Black wall in the fantasy kingdom.
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SYDELL: I see soldiers coming up in the snow holding torches. Oh my God. And fiery arrows - ah, I've been hit by a fiery arrow. Oh my God. Whoa.
That was me using an Oculist Rift VR headset. A few months later, Facebook paid $2 billion to buy the company. The first half of this year, Oculus is scheduled to hit the market, along with two other high-end VR headsets - Sony's Project Morpheus and HTC's Vive. Crucial to the success of these headsets will be more content, says analyst Blau.
BLAU: Ultimately, it's really up to the game developers and the content developers to really provide great user experiences.
SYDELL: Jaunt VR recently got $65 million of investment from Disney and Madison Square Garden Company. Jaunt's already been working with Disney-owned ABC News. Among the VR experiences they've created is a visit to the historic sites of Damascus, Syria.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Up here on the wall of the citadel, Damascus lies out before you, the capital of Syria, which thousands have fled to neighboring countries and Europe.
SYDELL: With a VR headset, you can turn in any direction and see the city as if you were on the citadel wall.
JENS CHRISTENSEN: You suddenly feel like you're actually there. And you get a sense of scale.
SYDELL: Jaunt's CEO, Jens Christensen, thinks news is going to be a big category for virtual reality.
CHRISTENSEN: This type of news content, I think, is very powerful in VR. It really - you get sort of a humanizing experience that you don't really get when you have a screen in front of you.
SYDELL: This past year, the New York Times began to experiment with VR, taking on experiences such as a journey with children displaced by war. The new world of production for virtual reality is a work in progress. Here at its Palo Alto headquarters, Jaunt has developed the equipment to shoot and edit these experiences. Jaunt's VR camera is about the size of a basketball. It's got over a dozen lenses wrapped around it. Koji Gardiner, who helped develop the camera, says they've had to overcome problem like synchronizing lens shutter together so if you're watching somebody walk...
KOJI GARDINER: You see them disappear between a stitch between the two cameras. So they disappear and then reappear in the camera next to it. And that's due to those not being synchronized.
SYDELL: Of course, there is no guarantee that all this investment in equipment is going to pay off. Many people have compared the enthusiasm for virtual reality with the failed experiments in 3D TV. It got millions of dollars in investments, too, and required viewers to don special classes. Analyst Blau doesn't see it that way.
BLAU: I think when you look at virtual reality, it is such a different type of experience that it's hard to make those comparisons stick.
SYDELL: The video game experience may be one way that virtual reality takes off this year. And gamers may share that experience with their parents and grandparents, opening the VR experience to another audience and laying the groundwork for a new art form and industry. Laura Sydell, NPR news.
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