It doesn’t take long. Thirty-six seconds into the video, actually. He locks his fingers together and presses his upper body outward, flexing his fingers and stretching his arms like Bruce Lee. The man, a ginger in a black t-short and cargo pants, with black bands strapped around his arms, legs and head, has fully transformed into the iron-clad hulk in the middle of the screen, even though his body is just standing in a basement somewhere. When he moves, it moves, exactly the same way. It’s stunning.
But it’s more than the technically impressive, totally synchronous movement between the two — there’s something fluid and free and loose about the man’s movements, a sense that he’s fully inhabiting the body of the virtual warrior, not just technically, but in his mind. There’s no self-consciousness as he claps and kicks and sways. And then he puts on a visor, and you can see the world he sees. His head turns, and the world shifts, just like the real world does when you turn your head.
We’re in a moment where this — virtual and augmented reality, combined with body-driven natural user interfaces made possible by ever cheaper sensors — is clearly the next Big Thing in gaming, decades after it was initially hyped and fizzled into a bunch of references to Lawnmower Man. Microsoft’s Kinect was just the beginning for a new wave: The Oculus Rift, a VR headset, is backed by the biggest names in PC gaming and raised nearly $2.5 million on Kickstarter. And Valve, one of the most important gaming companies in the world, is intently working on VR. The body tracking kit in this video runs around $4,000, calculates Joel Johnson . But it, or something like it, will be much cheaper when one of the big guys picks it up and runs with it — the primary innovation of Microsoft’s Kinect was that it took a sensor package that was cost $10,000 and figured out a way to sell it for under $200.
This stuff won’t be perfect at first, as it trickles out over the next few years: It’ll be a little low-res, a little clunky and a little sloppy. But it’ll get clearer, the sensors will get smaller, and the software will get smarter. And that doesn’t mean it won’t be totally immersive, even from the very beginning. Just watch that video one more time.
- Tom Perez has been named chair of the Democratic National Committee. He was Obama's Labor Secretary.