At this year’s Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, every other game seemed to include an immersive experience as seen through virtual reality goggles. With Facebook’s recent acquisition of Oculus VR, it’s apparent that virtual reality is the next big trend—for real this time. 

It was news all over Silicon Valley: Facebook spent $2 billion acquiring the virtual reality (VR) startup Oculus VR, developers of the Oculus Rift headset.

Immersive multimedia—in which one is transported into a 3-D, computer-generated environment simulating real or imagined worlds—is certainly the next big thing in gaming, as I learned recently. The Facebook purchase seems to indicate that it’s the next big thing period.

"10 Trends for 2014" report by JWT Intelligence, a marketing branding firm.

“10 Trends for 2014” report by JWT Intelligence, a marketing branding firm.

Virtual Reality at GDC

In March, I attended the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, the world’s largest and longest-running professionals-only game industry event. At almost every turn in the expo hall, I could literally become immersed in a game through goggles and headsets, including Oculus.

There was of course Oculus Rift (the Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 was just announced), but there was also Sony’s Project Morpheus, a PlayStation4 headset that debuted at GDC.

And the Cortex, launched at GDC, offered yet another VR headset using LIDAR (light detection and ranging) and ultrasound waves to map the real world around you and integrate it into a game.

VR Headshet at GDC

Players are part of the story

My favorite VR experience at GDC was when I landed in the middle of a crime story surrounded by a dead body, police, and onlookers in apelab’s IDNA prototype detective series, recently featured in The New York Times.

Their game transported me into an animated movie where I controlled the camera and interacted with the plot from inside the story. “It’s a movie in which you become a silent bystander,” says Emilie Tappolet, CEO of the apelab creative design studio based in Geneva, Switzerland.

apelab’s IDNA was also exhibited at swissnex San Francisco’s Spatial Stories event, held in conjunction with GDC and showcasing virtual and augmented reality games and installations.

At swissnex, visitors could move their eyesight and sense of self into a video camera aimed at their body with OuterBody Labs and meet LaTurbo Avedon, an avatar who exists online and can only be seen in a virtual space using VR goggles.

virtual reality goggles

Is Virtual Social next?

Barely a year ago, the first Oculus Rift Development Kits were distributed with the help of a Kickstarter campaign. Shortly thereafter, the first games using the kits arrived – most of them made by independent game makers.

Understandably, there are mixed feelings about the Facebook buy.

The Oculus website says, “we believe communication drives new platforms; we want to contribute to a more open, connected world; and we both [Facebook and Oculus] see virtual reality as the next step.”

But many who supported the Kickstarter in its early days are disappointed that their backing of an independent company resulted in seeding “a first investment round to build value for a Facebook acquisition.”

Markus Persson, known in the gaming world for the creation of Minecraft, has explained his unease like this: “I did not chip in ten grand to seed a first investment round to build value for a Facebook acquisition.”

He agrees that social could become one of the biggest applications of VR, however. Imagine virtual business meetings, cinemas, and social gatherings… Virtual reality also holds promise for education, military training, urban design—even therapeutics.

Some have compared the Oculus purchase to Larry Page’s Google acquiring Nest with the hope of being a part of the next great platform.

VR Evangelist Bruce Bertrand Wooden, known by his Cymatic Bruce YouTube alias, says, “I am not a huge fan of Facebook the site, but if Facebook the company wants to fund the VR revolution then I am all aboard.”

2014 may indeed go down as the year that virtual gaming truly broke through. It makes me wonder: Where else will virtual reality take hold in the near future?