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Is there a person alive who hasn’t walked out of a Star Wars movie thinking, “I want to fly the Millennium Falcon”? Today, thanks to a new generation of virtual reality (VR) headsets and VR-enabled smart phones, apps and games, that wish is about to come true. From Google’s flimsy and fun Cardboard to Samsung’s Gear, which lets a user snap in a smartphone, to the powerful Rift headset from Oculus, VR is here—and it’s going to be huge. Designers and storytellers: pay attention.

A virtual reality–only game, EVE: Valkyrie places players in the combat zone of an aerial dogfight. CCP Games is developing the game for Oculus Rift and PlayStation 4’s VR headset, Project Morpheus. Without a release date (as of press time), WIRED UK called it “one of the most anticipated games currently in development.” 

First, an explanation for the uninitiated: VR combines a head-mounted, motion-tracking device with a viewer that displays a 360-degree environment. Games, videos, computer graphics (CG), photographs, movies, animations, 3-D models—if it can be captured and rendered, it can be displayed as a spatially accurate 3-D enviro­n­ment. VR places you in the scene, so when you look up, down or to the side, the scene moves with you. Audio cues are spatial as well, so you hear what’s coming from the appropriate direction. Merge 3-D motion tracking—which syncs a player’s movement to a real-time game display—with handheld sensors, and a new generation of game play opens up, from light saber swordplay to batting practice to martial arts. Think Fight Club without the black eyes and broken teeth.

The secret sauce of VR is, in a word, immersion. Strap on a VR head­set and, in a matter of seconds, the world around you disappears. You plunge into a new dimension.

Nick DiCarlo, Samsung’s vice president of Immersive Products and Virtual Reality, who has conducted hundreds of VR demos, watches and waits for the telltale sign when a first-timer enters a VR world. He calls it “the VR smile,” and it appears in about five seconds. DiCarlo chalks it up to VR’s ability to deliver isolation and focus.

Depending on the app, a VR user can find themselves flying a jet, exploring a dungeon, fighting with a laser, driving through the streets of San Francisco, soaring over Manhattan, touring a luxury home for sale or visiting a refugee camp. And the effect is utterly believable. How believable? “Clouds Over Sidra,” the eight-minute VR film shot for the United Nations, premiered at the 2015 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Told from the perspective of a 12-year-old Syrian girl living in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, the VR film is so powerful that the producers have said, “If people aren’t crying, we suspect the headset isn’t working.”

The transformation of VR from science fiction to a gift you’ll find under a Christmas tree has been a long time coming. Once the sole province of military simulation and NASA engineers, VR attracted enormous press attention in the mid-1980s with the launch of Jaron Lanier’s VPL Research. Unfortunately, the first commercially available headset and data glove produced by VPL weren’t ready for prime time, and the company cratered in 1990.

Oculus Rift’s headset is set for release in early 2016. Oculus Touch’s hand controllers track hand gestures, enabling users to interact with the virtual realm more fluidly. 

Today the stars have aligned. Headset makers like Oculus VR (Rift), Samsung (Gear), Microsoft (HoloLens) and HTC (Vive) have jumped into the arena. And the dreaded motion sickness and VR-induced vertigo that plagued early versions is gone. Thanks to processors that refresh VR worlds at the rate of 90 frames per second for a fluid, jitter-free display of high-resolution graphics, a new genera­tion of lightweight headsets that provide a wide field of view, and low-latency motion sensing capabilities that track the wearer’s real-space movements to the virtual environment, VR no longer requires an airsickness bag.

At a recent press conference in San Francisco, Oculus VR CEO Brendan Iribe rhapsodized about the new platform and its magical properties. “You put [Rift] on, and your brain makes the switch,” Iribe said. “You feel like you are there, instantly teleported.” Of all the VR systems, Oculus VR seems to have nailed it. Set for release in 2016, the elegant form factor combines a headset that weighs about as much as a baseball cap and looks like a ski goggle on steroids with a motion sensor that plugs into the back of your computer and onboard audio that delivers 3-D sound cues.

One of the hardest problems to solve in the VR world is that of “handedness.” You don a headset and play the VR trailer for The Avengers, and when you see Thor’s hammer flying toward you, it’s only natural to want to grab it. Or as Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey says about interacting with VR worlds, “Input is hard.” For now, game input will be a wireless Xbox controller, but Oculus promises that its own handheld controllers, called Touch, will be coming soon. Thanks to built-in 3-D sensors, the half-moon, pistol grip controllers enable users to interact in VR space as if they were using their own hands.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Google Cardboard. At first glance, Cardboard looks more like a prank than a product. Selling for about $20, Cardboard is actually made of cardboard. Fold tab A into slot B, slide in an Android smartphone and down­load a VR app from the Google Play store. Then you’re ready for games, 360-degree music videos and expeditions that can take school kids on field trips around the world. Amir Rubin, CEO of Sixense, makers of the Presence VR engine and STEM motion-tracking system, says, “When I think of the potential VR has to transform education, I get goose bumps.”

Although next-generation VR headsets have yet to prove themselves in the consumer marketplace, brand marketers are eagerly experi­menting with the new medium. Coca-Cola entered the realm of VR with Casa Coca-Cola, a branded experience at the 2014 World Cup that took participants into a VR replica of the playing field of Maracaña Stadium in Brazil. Volvo partnered with R/GA to create a VR test drive using Google Cardboard to simulate a test drive of the carmaker’s XC90 SUV at the 2014 Los Angeles Auto Show. Merrell, the outdoor apparel company, tapped visual effects studio Framestore to make a VR walk-around that enabled 2015 Sundance Film Festival attendees to strap on an Oculus Rift and take a virtual hike through the Dolomites of Italy. The thinking is that the depth and intensity of these branded immersion experiences might just turn viewers into buyers.

Recognizing that a new delivery platform needs content the way a razor needs a blade, forward-looking filmmakers are getting into the content game. Jaunt, a Palo Alto–based VR company, is exploring and expanding the medium with VR concerts that teleport viewers to performances by artists such as Paul McCartney, behind-the-scenes fashion shoots at ELLE magazine and cinematic VR movies like The Mission. In a field that feels brand new, Scott Broock, Jaunt’s vice president of content, says, “Everything we’ve done is a first.”

For today’s designers, illustrators, photographers and storytellers who want to join the party, Broock thinks the doors of VR are wide open. “What’s cool is that right now, we’re just starting. We’re all at the same level. It’s open to everyone.”

Created for Sony’s Project Morpheus headset, The Assembly is a game that drops players into a science laboratory, where they can make toxic concoctions in the role of a scientist. 

Everyone, that is, who can master short-form content, CG lighting effects and spatial audio and who can render complex mechanical creations in a game engine. Jaunt thinks it knows where to find these people: Hollywood. It’s opening a studio in Los Angeles as an incubator to drive the medium forward. People with backgrounds in film, game design and theater have become more relevant than ever, Broock says. “To make something insanely compelling, you want to think about the story dimensionally and put yourself in someone’s shoes.” The people Broock expects to thrive in the new medium already know CINEMA 4D, Maya, After Effects, Avid and Final Cut Pro. Broock says that now they also need to know “how to tell a great story, how to shoot a great video and how to integrate CG into live productions. If they know this and they are fearless, they have a chance to blow minds.”

Meanwhile, in Florida, Magic Leap is hiring, big time. The secretive VR company, which has raised more than $500 million in funding, claims to be working on technology that “generates images indis­tinguishable from real objects and places those images seamlessly into the real world.” A scan of the Wizards Wanted page on its website reveals the company is looking for a spectrum of engineers, along with visual designers, interaction designers, art directors and character technical leads “capable of rigging and deformation.” For nonwizards, that means emulating the jiggle, bounce and shake of the muscle systems of animated characters.

No matter how VR shakes out, the work is going to demand a group effort, involving teams of writers, designers, filmmakers, camera operators, 3-D design compositors, and experts in lighting, textures and sound design, as well as the ability to pilot a drone flying a GoPro-equipped custom rig. David Lai, co-founder of Hello Design in Los Angeles, is currently exploring VR work for the studio’s roster of clients. For digital agencies, Lai sees two main tracks to VR. “You can do 3-D environments in real-world settings or explore computer graphics for gaming platforms.” To ensure it is ready, Hello Design just invested in a supercharged Falcon Northwest computer optimized for VR.

For digital agencies about to step into this new realm, Lai suggests beginning with 360-degree video experiences. “Learn how to handle video in panoramic and cinematic settings,” he suggests. “Get your hands on a dev kit, then start prototyping for current clients. A new world of possibility will open up a new world of interface design. Whether people embrace it or not remains to be seen.” But first and foremost, Lai says, “We have to tell stories worth sharing.”

Combine the precision of Hollywood blockbuster visual special effects studios with the mad scientist of Back to the Future, and you begin to sense what it is like to work with Ntropic and its VR partner Tactic. To film a VR test drive, Tactic drove through the streets of San Francisco, shooting from its own custom-made, 3-D printed rig festooned with GoPro cameras. Ntropic then mapped the footage over a CG-rendered photo-real Lincoln MKC interior. The experience is uncanny. San Francisco unfolds from the driver’s seat—until you notice there are no hands on the steering wheel. Ntropic and Tactic also partnered to create a VR experience in Times Square in support of artist Marco Brambilla’s Apollo 18 film installation, shooting from several vantage points with VR capture rigs to create the full scope of a multiscreen experience.

Virtual reality developer Tactic captured San Francisco’s sights using GoPro cameras. Then, creative studio Ntropic composited that footage into a VR experience, placing users in the driver’s seat of a smooth and scenic ride as a proof of concept for Lincoln MKC. 

A visit to wearetactic.com begins to hint at the new medium’s capabilities. Visitors can see VR demonstrations of a virtual test drive, experience midnight in Times Square and fly over San Francisco while seeing everything in 360 degrees. The effect is breathtaking. Tom Wright, managing director at Ntropic and Tactic co-founder, jokes, “It is so immersive, so visceral, you’re going to need FDA regulations.” Peter Oberdorfer, CEO of Tactic, sees momentum for VR building week by week, with “crazy development” on the hardware side. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. And this is from the guy who helped bring the special effects in The Matrix Reloaded to the big screen.

Looking over the horizon, Oberdorfer predicts amateur VR on Facebook within two years. Combined with a 3-D viewer like Marmoset, anyone with a web browser will be able to experience VR on the web or a mobile device. Add that capability to a tool like Periscope, which streams live video to a Twitter feed, and you have a new mode of communication on a new platform, according to Oberdorfer. “It’s going to change the way people experience the world.”

Thirty years in the making, the VR wave is about to wash on shore. Will it crash onto the beach and disappear as a passing fad? Or will it utterly change the way we play, travel, shop and learn? Time will tell. Meanwhile, all you would-be star fighters? There’s a Millennium Falcon waiting for you. ca

Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at sam@wordstrong.com.

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