I had a lot of experiences this past week: I shot birds out of the sky with my eyes, my fingers were on fire, I flew on top of a drone over the arctic and looked into the jaws of a dragon.
I did all this without leaving San Francisco, at the 2015 Game Developers Conference, where the people who make the video games we love to play come to the city by the thousands to check out the latest hardware and software for making games.
Many others were also trying the latest in virtual reality, a technology that's been talked about since the 1980s, but may finally be on its way to becoming a reality in the real world.
Among my experiences was standing in the lair of the dragon Smaug from the Hobbit films, surrounded by gold coins. He descended upon me and opened his massive jaws. It was actually frightening because no matter which way I turned my head it looked as if I was standing in the lair. That's part of what's so compelling about virtual reality. As long as you're wearing the goggles, you are immersed in a different 3-D reality.
Kim Libreri, the CTO of Epic Games who helped create the Hobbit VR experience, says the short visit to the Smaug's lair was an experiment.
"One of the interesting things about virtual reality is that it's sort of this hybrid medium between a game and a movie," Libreri says.
Libreri says they realized they had to change the dialog a bit if it was to work as an immersive experience.
"If we'd said you are Bilbo you would have felt a little bit weird because you would have heard this voice talking back to Smaug," he says, "and it would have been like 'hold on!' I'm me. I'm not Bilbo.'"
This particular experiment used the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift — the company that was purchased last year by Facebook for $2 billion. But there were many other headsets on display at the conference.
A Swiss company called MindMaze has a headset that can drop a layer of virtual reality on top of the real thing. I was able to put them on, and when I looked at my real hands it seemed as if there were flames coming out of my finger tips.
MindMaze CEO Tej Tadi grabbed my hand for a moment and his hands were on also fire. In a game, this could be used to give me the power to shoot flames at a city with my fingers.
Tadi says his headset is making an important technological leap — seeing your actual hands — which some of his competitors haven't done yet.
"Just by getting your body into the picture, into these virtual worlds, where you body is your controller versus just joysticks, which is artificial; you can just use your hands as you would in the real world," Tadi says. "That opens up a whole new way of interacting with games."
And this is the conference where those new ideas are shared with the people making the games of the future.
Tim Sweeney, who founded Epic Games, thinks virtual reality is kind of where smartphones were over a decade ago. Just look that technology is now compared to the first iPhone — and that wasn't long ago.
"I think we're on track now where they're going to be such enormous improvements every few months in the hardware and in the software and in the media itself," Sweeney says. "It's a continuous revolution from here onward."
Of course, this could all be a lot of hype. Remember 3-D TV? If you don't, that's OK. It required wearing silly glasses in front of your TV and never quite caught on. But analysts think VR is much more compelling.
Last year, in addition to the $2 billion Facebook paid for Oculus, investors put another half a billion dollars into virtual reality, and analysts think there is a real world future for the technology. Unfortunately, it's likely to be at least a year before most consumers get to try it.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
NPR's Laura Sydell covers Silicon Valley and technology from San Francisco which means that when the annual Game Developer's Conference comes to town, Laura gets to go play all the latest video games for her job. In exchange, she tells us about all the cool stuff coming down the pike. And this year, it is all about virtual reality. Technology, Laura says, is so real, it can be scary.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME)
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Smaug) Come now. Don't be shy.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: I had a lot of experiences this past week. I shot birds out of the sky with my eyes. My fingers were on fire. I flew on top of a drone over the arctic, sat in a dungeon across from a really scary guy, looked into the jaws of a dragon.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME)
CUMBERBATCH: (As Smaug) There is something about you.
SYDELL: That's Smaug, the dragon from the actual "Hobbit" film. After I put on virtual reality goggles, it was me, not Bilbo, who was staring into his massive jaws, even though I was standing an empty room.
It's walking towards me and above me. Oh, wow.
I felt like running, but there was no place to go. Every direction I turned my head, it looked as if I were in a dragon's lair.
KIM LIBRERI: One of the interesting things about virtual reality is that it's sort of this hybrid medium between a game and a movie.
SYDELL: Kim Libreri, CTO of Epic Games helped create this experience which was largely an experiment. And it isn't available to consumers yet. Libreri says they used Smaug's real dialogue from the film, but...
LIBRERI: If we'd said you were Bilbo, you would've felt a little bit weird because you would have heard this sort of voice talking back to Smaug. And it would've been, like, hold on. I'm me. I'm not Bilbo.
SYDELL: This particular experience used the most well-known virtual reality head set, Oculus Rift, the company that was purchased by Facebook last year for $2 billion. But there were other headsets on display here.
TEJ TADI: Is it too tight, or is this OK for you?
SYDELL: No, it's OK.
I'm trying on a headset from a Swiss company called MindMaze. Among its features is that it can drop a layer of virtual reality on top of the real thing. I looked down at my hands, the real ones.
So I see, like, flames coming out of my fingers.
CEO of the company, Tej Tadi, touches my hand.
Ah, I see. So I'm burning you now. So in a game, I might be able to torch an entire city by shooting flames from my fingers. It's an important technological leap, says Tadi, because with this headset, you can see your hands and in many VR experiences, you can't.
TADI: Just by getting your body into the picture, into these virtual worlds where your body is your controller versus just joysticks which is artificial, you can just use you hands as you would in the real world. That opens up a whole new way of interacting with games.
SYDELL: And this is the conference where those new ideas are shared with the people making the games of the future. Tim Sweeney, who founded Epic Games, which created the Hobbit experience, thinks virtual reality is kind of where smart phones were over a decade ago. Remember the first iPhone? And look at what we've got now.
TIM SWEENEY: I think we're on track now where there are going to be such enormous improvements every few months - in the hardware and in the software, in the media itself - that we're on track. It's a continuous revolution from here onward.
SYDELL: Of course this could all be a lot of hype. Remember 3-D TV? If you don't, that's OK. It required wearing silly glasses in front of your TV, but analysts think VR is much more compelling. Last year in addition to the $2 billion Facebook paid for Oculus, investors put another half a billion into virtual reality. And analysts think there is a real world future for it. Unfortunately, it's likely to be at least a year before most consumers will get to try it. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.