Virtual reality is making headlines right now, and it's only going to get more intense from here. The concept of VR gaming really started to appear in the news again over the last year with the success of the Oculus Rift, a head-mounted display that allows you to feel like you're actually in a videogame. Only developers and a small number of crowdfunding backers have been able to get their hands on it so far, but most of them say good things.
As the world waited for a consumer release, something else major happened. At the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last week, Sony decided to use the event to showcase its new plans for virtual reality: a mysteriously named device called Project Morpheus that works with the PlayStation 4. Suddenly one of the giants of console gaming was backing virtual reality, surely it was time to sit up and take notice?
But just when you thought things couldn't get much bigger, they did. Facebook, the leading social network that has millions of users every single day, decided to lump up $2billion USD of its own money and shares to acquire Oculus VR, the team behind the Rift. What this means is unclear for now, but Facebook has been talking of its plans to offer more than just gaming experiences.
Of course, it's natural to be cautious when discussing the deal. Facebook doesn't have the best track record when it comes to games; think of Farmville and all the other mediocre titles that have made their creators rich on that platform. But at least it's being up front about its intentions, and saying that the Rift's gaming capabilities will be unaffected by Facebook's goals to open the hardware up to the wider world.
So the Rift might not just be a gaming device after all, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing. Developers should be encouraged by the fact that there is so much focus on virtual reality right now, and there's even whispers that Microsoft is preparing to enter the market too. Save for Minecraft creator Notch and his reservations about Facebook, there's a lot to take courage in if you're an advocate of VR.
Competition, for one, is a big deal. Now there are at least two big players who will release products in the coming years, and Sony's project could prove even more successful. Now gamers can purchase the Morpheus add-on for their PS4s and possibly jump right into their favourite games. Morpheus can be used in conjunction with the DualShock 4, the PlayStation Camera and even the PlayStation Move, allowing you to become fully immersed in whatever world developers can build.
It's far too early to tell whether VR is a fad or the future of gaming, but developers are certainly happy about Sony's announcement. It makes their decision to create VR games a lot less risky, at least in the short term. Some are even saying this could be as big a turning point for games as the Wii was back when it launched nearly eight years ago and introduced a whole new demographic to games.
Early reports seem to indicate that the Rift is looking like the better product at the moment, with users reporting some blurring with the Morpheus display. However that's to be expected from a product that's been in testing for a lot longer, and Sony is eager to insist that Morpheus is just a prototype for now. The coming years will be very exciting indeed.
The real test arrives when the hardware goes on sale to a wider audience. It's all well and good letting enthusiast gamers and press have their say on the technology, but what about the average consumer who isn't willing to overlook some of the problems that come with virtual reality? The relationship between player movements and looking around needs to be perfected so you really feel a part of something, while there's a real worry that nausea could affect a lot of players.
Sony also has to make sure Morpheus doesn't get consigned to the peripheral bin, a space currently occupied by the EyeToy, PlayStation Eye and the first Kinect. Those products promised so much and had players jumping up and down in their bedrooms for weeks, but there was a lack of game support and in the end they all faded away without fulfilling their potential. How can you make sure Morpheus and the Oculus Rift live up to expectations, when even bundling in hardware with consoles can't even make sure its a success?
It's a tough question, but it will have to be answered eventually. For now virtual reality is in the ascendance and everyone is keen to figure out just what the future holds. Facebook and Sony are firmly behind the technology, now it's time to get excited. This could end up taking gamers in a whole new direction.