Virtual reality to go mainstream with Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR
A MIDDLE-AGED white man sees himself as a young black woman being taunted by a racist.
A star athlete experiences what life would be like in a wheelchair.
These are not plots of dystopian movies. They are experiences that take place in virtual reality (VR), which technologists believe will be the next major platform for everything from gaming to social interaction and perhaps even global diplomacy.
Marketers predict VR headsets will soon top wish lists for kids and young adults from the Silicon Valley to Hong Kong.
The computer-generated images beamed to devices strapped around a person's head allow users to experience "presence" - the sense that they are entering video games or movies, climbing a treacherous Vietnamese mountain or scuba diving at a coral reef.
Potential benefits include hands-on teaching with a classroom of far-flung students, or holding a business meeting whose global participants sense they are rubbing elbows.
The upcoming roll-out of the Oculus Rift - a US$599 (S$820) headset offering studio-quality VR - is expected to jump-start industry sales and could push aside smartphones and computer tablets.
Meanwhile, Sony announced at this week's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco it would launch its PlayStation VR headgear, priced at US$399, in October.
VR has been a dream of tech geeks for decades. But until recently, devices were relegated to research labs because of their exorbitant cost, clunky construction and quality issues that included motion sickness.
At Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, experiments were done until 2014 with a US$40,000 device that gave users neckaches. Now, the lab uses a lightweight Rift at a fraction of the cost.
"I believe in virtual reality and I believed it could be amazing, but that was not a view shared by everyone," Rift inventor Palmer Luckey said.
The Rift, created in 2011 by him in his parents' California garage when he was 18, uses images and sounds to convince users' brains they are flying over a city or standing on a skyscraper.
"Vision is really important. You rely on it for a majority of your senses," said Jason Rubin, who, as head of worldwide studios, oversees content development for Oculus. "So if we can take over your eyes, we can get control of your belief system."
Oculus, bought by Facebook in 2014 for US$2 billion, is competing with Google, Samsung and Sony in creating VR devices, with analysts expecting sales of 12 million headsets by the end of this year.
But Tim Merel, founder of technology advisory firm Digi-Capital, says VR will be eclipsed by augmented reality, or AR, within a few years.
VR is fully immersive, meaning a user cannot walk down a street wearing a headset. AR is partly immersive: A person can do everyday tasks while augmenting them with virtual images, using holograms (such as flying dinosaurs) superimposed on the user's field of vision.
While Merel thinks VR will cannibalise video games and become a US$30 billion market by 2020, he sees AR as taking over the smartphone and tablet market and accounting for US$90 billion in annual sales in the same period.
While most VR content now focuses on gaming, it has far greater potential and impact.
Developers envision its use in dealing with phobias and addiction, or in helping youngsters combat bullying. The United Nations is using a VR film to give people a sense of living in a Syrian refugee camp. The New York Times is using it for immersive news reports.
There also are potential risks, such as overuse or people discovering they are more comfortable in a virtual world.
"When porn feels like sex, how does that affect reproduction rates?" asked Jeremy Bailenson, a Stanford professor of communication.
The Rift, about the size of a brick but considerably lighter, will be shipped on March 28 to customers who pre-ordered it.
Oculus has not said when its device will be available.