Deep in the Virtual World: A Newbie’s First Brush with VR

My descent from the boat, gliding through schools of fish and clouds of phosphorescent jellyfish, seemed to be going pretty smoothly. At least until the shark emerged from the deeper gloom and tried to tear its way into my protective cage.

Of course, it wasn't really a shark. And I wasn't really in a cage -- or underwater or even anywhere near the ocean. But it sure felt like I was.

At its best, this is exactly what you can expect from the much-hyped technology of virtual reality. All you have to do is put on a headset that blocks out the surrounding world and replaces it with one that's fake -- but often utterly realistic. Suddenly it's like you've stepped out of your life and into someone else's.

With the debut of new VR headsets from Facebook's Oculus unit, Samsung and Sony over the past few months, virtual reality hype has been off the charts. To its proponents, it's the Next Great Thing, a whole new way of "immersing" (a word you'll be hearing a lot) yourself in games, movies, even live music or sports.

Until a few weeks ago, though, the prospect left me cold. The first wave of VR entertainment consists largely of video games, which have never much interested me. Reports that VR can make you nauseous also put me off. Eventually, though, I had to try it, and my first brush with the technology was intriguing enough to keep me exploring.

Just not enough to plunk down more than a thousand dollars for a full-fledged VR system anytime soon. Current VR offerings have a lot of room for improvement; many of them get old quickly once the initial "wow" factor wears off. It's also hard not to feel self-conscious wearing goofy-looking headgear, especially when surrounded by strangers you can't see.

The...

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