RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
NPR's Laura Sydell covers Silicon Valley and technology from San Francisco which means that when the annual Game Developer's Conference comes to town, Laura gets to go play all the latest video games for her job. In exchange, she tells us about all the cool stuff coming down the pike. And this year, it is all about virtual reality. Technology, Laura says, is so real, it can be scary.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME)
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Smaug) Come now. Don't be shy.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: I had a lot of experiences this past week. I shot birds out of the sky with my eyes. My fingers were on fire. I flew on top of a drone over the arctic, sat in a dungeon across from a really scary guy, looked into the jaws of a dragon.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME)
CUMBERBATCH: (As Smaug) There is something about you.
SYDELL: That's Smaug, the dragon from the actual "Hobbit" film. After I put on virtual reality goggles, it was me, not Bilbo, who was staring into his massive jaws, even though I was standing an empty room.
It's walking towards me and above me. Oh, wow.
I felt like running, but there was no place to go. Every direction I turned my head, it looked as if I were in a dragon's lair.
KIM LIBRERI: One of the interesting things about virtual reality is that it's sort of this hybrid medium between a game and a movie.
SYDELL: Kim Libreri, CTO of Epic Games helped create this experience which was largely an experiment. And it isn't available to consumers yet. Libreri says they used Smaug's real dialogue from the film, but...
LIBRERI: If we'd said you were Bilbo, you would've felt a little bit weird because you would have heard this sort of voice talking back to Smaug. And it would've been, like, hold on. I'm me. I'm not Bilbo.
SYDELL: This particular experience used the most well-known virtual reality head set, Oculus Rift, the company that was purchased by Facebook last year for $2 billion. But there were other headsets on display here.
TEJ TADI: Is it too tight, or is this OK for you?
SYDELL: No, it's OK.
I'm trying on a headset from a Swiss company called MindMaze. Among its features is that it can drop a layer of virtual reality on top of the real thing. I looked down at my hands, the real ones.
So I see, like, flames coming out of my fingers.
CEO of the company, Tej Tadi, touches my hand.
Ah, I see. So I'm burning you now. So in a game, I might be able to torch an entire city by shooting flames from my fingers. It's an important technological leap, says Tadi, because with this headset, you can see your hands and in many VR experiences, you can't.
TADI: Just by getting your body into the picture, into these virtual worlds where your body is your controller versus just joysticks which is artificial, you can just use you hands as you would in the real world. That opens up a whole new way of interacting with games.
SYDELL: And this is the conference where those new ideas are shared with the people making the games of the future. Tim Sweeney, who founded Epic Games, which created the Hobbit experience, thinks virtual reality is kind of where smart phones were over a decade ago. Remember the first iPhone? And look at what we've got now.
TIM SWEENEY: I think we're on track now where there are going to be such enormous improvements every few months - in the hardware and in the software, in the media itself - that we're on track. It's a continuous revolution from here onward.
SYDELL: Of course this could all be a lot of hype. Remember 3-D TV? If you don't, that's OK. It required wearing silly glasses in front of your TV, but analysts think VR is much more compelling. Last year in addition to the $2 billion Facebook paid for Oculus, investors put another half a billion into virtual reality. And analysts think there is a real world future for it. Unfortunately, it's likely to be at least a year before most consumers will get to try it. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.
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