After years of talk and demonstrations, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset is finally shipping to regular consumers today. Perhaps no technology has repeatedly disappointed society more than VR over the past few decades, but this go-round seems different and there's plenty of reason to believe that the fad won't fade this time.
Let's go beyond the basic prediction that VR is finally here to stay and look at the following very specific ways that it will change our lives in the years to come. Here goes:
"Watching" re-defined: Almost 20 years ago I sat with a group of friends in a dorm room where we all spent hours silently watching just one of us playing "Resident Evil" on the original Sony PlayStation. The cinematic gameplay kept us just as rapt as a Hollywood sci-fi thriller.
Over the next few years, Oculus and other VR platforms will transform the act of "watching " to a new way of "experiencing" games, movies, television and even porn. "Watching" will become more like what we did in that dorm room, with friends and family gathered around a screen behind the person(s) wearing VR headsets to act as spectators to those "experiencing" the content in the room.
Clear a space: Get ready for the open floor plan to invade your home. While Oculus needs to be tethered to a computer or other platform to work, it still requires quite a bit of physical space to move around in. Living rooms of early adopters are about to become a lot less cluttered.
Beyond Skype and FaceTime: VR isn't only about escaping reality. It's also a potentially game-changing communications platform. It's no coincidence that Facebook bought Oculus. The company has designs on making social media and communications in general more immersive.
Imagine sitting in the same virtual coffee shop on a blind date with someone (or their chosen avatar) halfway around the world. With even more advanced mixed reality technology like Microsoft's HoloLens, such an interaction won't even require the meeting place to be virtual. We could very soon be holographically projecting ourselves into other people's real-world living rooms in real-time across the globe.
Social media is about to take even more of your time: So you have to fight getting totally sucked into Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat today? You haven't seen anything yet. As mentioned above, Facebook and Oculus are one and the same, and it's conspiring to transform the social network into a world that you can literally live inside of. Forget cat videos, imagine experiencing that hilarious animal in the room next to you. R.I.P., productivity.
Wearing our distractions: Along the same lines, the common sight of everyone in a room with their face buried in their phone is just the beginning. Less sophisticated, phone-based VR headsets like Samsung's Gear VR and Google Cardboard are already available for taking the tether off the VR experience. One day we won't be surprised by a coffee shop full of people strapped into VR headsets.
The point-of-view revolution: Forget 3D or HD -- POV will be the acronym that defines how we consume our favorite content over the next decade. Experiments are already underway in creating virtual-reality news, sports and entertainment content that puts the viewer behind the eyeballs of a newsmaker, athlete or concert-goer that is actually on the scene. This goes back to the concept of experiencing rather than just watching. One day soon we'll watch classic plays over and over again from the vantage point of star quarterbacks, watch TV and movies multiple times from the viewpoints of different characters and walk around real-world war zones with journalists in a virtual space.
The VR revolution won't be all about entertainment, either. NASA is among many big names invested in using the technology to explore the universe and educate the next generation of students about science. The potential to use virtual reality for breakthroughs in fields like training, telemedicine, education and even therapy is huge.
If any of this terrifies you, consider it an early warning. The world isn't going to be transformed tomorrow, or even next year. This version of virtual reality is likely to succeed precisely because it's such a long play.
Most of you will never own the Oculus that just went on sale today. But you or members of your family might well have one of the future generations of this model, or one of the major competing platforms from the likes of HTC, Sony and Microsoft that are also on the horizon.
The future is here. You can hide from it if you want, but this time the best way to do that might just be to escape into this new technology itself.