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Oculus’ “Half Moon” controllers have sensors that track your movements and are meant to make the VR experience more immersive. Photo via Oculus.

It was only 15 minutes, but my time playing with Oculus’ latest virtual reality technology on Friday at the PAX Prime game convention in Seattle was the most exciting “video game” experience I’ve ever had.

I use quotes around “video game” because it’s difficult to put the demonstration I tried in the same league as the video games we’ve come to know and love over the past several decades.

In fact, before the demo, I ventured into the “Classic Arcade” room at PAX and had a blast playing old school hits like Tron and The Simpsons. I also stopped at the Sony booth to try out the new Uncharted game on the PlayStation 4.

But the “Toybox” demo on Oculus felt like something from another planet.

Oculus booth
Oculus (Facebook) had a particularly enormous booth, especially for a subsidiary that isn’t even selling its main product yet.

The demo

Inside a quiet, air-conditioned room at the giant Oculus booth, I strapped on the latest Crescent Bay prototype version of the company’s VR headset, which is set for commercial release early next year. The headset itself was connected with a wire to a PC, and there were two positional-tracking cameras on the wall behind me.

I’ve tested the Samsung Gear VR and a previous version of Oculus’ goggles, so seeing the initial screen and looking around the 360-degree virtual space wasn’t anything new.

But then Hans, an Oculus brand ambassador, placed two small controllers in my hand. Oculus, which was acquired by Facebook for $2 billion last year, calls these prototypes “Half Moon,” or more generally “Oculus Touch.” They have sensors that track your movements and communicate with the same cameras that detect where the headset is. The controllers are meant to make the VR experience more immersive — I soon found out that they certainly do.

Photo via Oculus.

Hans stepped into an adjacent soundproof room and put on his own headset. A few seconds later, a somewhat creepy blueish-silver human outline of Hans showed up in my view. I could hear his voice in real-time through my headphones as he “stood” in front of me. We were in the same virtual world, talking to each other. This was already trippy.

Soon we were transported into a new setting, this one with a table in between us that had an assortment of toys — hence the “Toybox” demo name — like building blocks, boomerangs, and more. Hans explained how to use the controllers, and this is where my first “wow” moment came.

The controller itself, which you can see above, somewhat mimics a Nintendo Wii Nunchuck, but fits more naturally to your hand. Each has four buttons — two on the top and two triggers underneath for your index and middle fingers — along with a joystick controlled by your thumb.

The controllers essentially give you virtual hands, allowing the system to know when you’re trying to grab something, when you point, when you’re making a fist, etc. It also knows if you’re giving a thumbs up because it detects when you lift your thumb off the joystick.

“It’s an interesting thing because it’s optically tracked and it knows the spatial distance between what you see and where your hands are,” ZeroTransform founder Justin Moravetz explained at a virtual reality panel earlier this month. “You can go up to an object in virtual reality and pick it up. You’ve got one for each hand so you can toss something back and forth. It’s so accurate and so precise. When you stop thinking about your hand and just interact like you would in the real world, that’s insane.”

Photo via Oculus.
Photo via Oculus.

Picking up virtual items while holding a physical controller was a bit odd at first, but I quickly got the hang of it — and holy crap, it was amazing.

Hans and I started the demo by picking up blocks and building a tower together. I playfully swung my hand across the stack, laughing with Hans as they all came crashing down. After that I threw some blocks at glass plates that were hanging in the air, and they shattered into pieces. Awesome.

Then, roman candles and sparklers appeared on the table, along with a lighter you could ignite by quickly twisting your wrist from side to side while holding the lighter. After messing around with virtual flames, we spent a few moments playing tetherball — you could even headbutt the ball, since the headset is also being tracked in space — and ping pong.

As I moved my arm to smack the tetherball each time it swung around the pole, I realized how precise the tracking technology was — it knew how soft or hard I was swinging, and the tetherball would respond just as you’d expect it to in real life. I had a similar realization when I picked up a ping pong ball, tossed it in the air, then hit it toward Hans as we tried to volley back and forth.

Photo via Oculus.
Photo via Oculus.

Adding to the immersive and personal aspect of the experience, I could hear Hans talking to me throughout the demo, and he could hear me, too. Another neat audio aspect: Since the system knows where your hands are, the noise from the firecracker became louder as I moved it closer to my ears.

Later we tried our hand at skeet-shooting, fired rayguns, and spent some time in virtual outer space, where everything floated. Hans also activated a fun mode that turned him into a giant with a deep voice, while I was miniature.

Playing with a slingshot was another cool moment — the more you pulled back on the elastic, the further the ball would travel, just like in real life.

Much to my disappointment, the demo ended after 15 minutes. I took off the headset and returned to the real world with a big smile, amazed at what I just played with.

New technology revolution

GeekWire reporter Jacob Demmitt tries out the HTC Vive.
GeekWire reporter Jacob Demmitt tries out the HTC Vive.

Oculus isn’t the only one developing this type of immersive VR with handheld controllers. My fellow GeekWire reporter Jacob Demmitt had a chance to try out the HTC Vive, which is also being demoed here at PAX and features similar tracking technology with controllers.

“I’ve tried a lot of VR demos, but this the first time I’ve ever forgotten someone else was in the room, watching me crawl around the floor with a grin on my face,” Jacob wrote.

As I listened to entrepreneurs in the industry gush over the potential impact virtual reality will have earlier this month, I wasn’t totally convinced about this “new revolution in technology,” as they deemed it.

But after my experience on Friday, I’m so much more excited to see what companies like Oculus and HTC — which is partnering with Valve on the Vive — roll out early next year, when they debut their headsets to the masses for the first time ever (the first Oculus Rift won’t ship with the controllers, unfortunately). It will be equally interesting to see what types of games and applications come about with this new medium.

To go from playing Frogger in the “Classic Arcade” room and then try out Oculus’ latest technology just a few minutes later was a fascinating juxtaposition for me. It was a reminder of how far video games have come in the past few decades — and it seems the best has yet to come.

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