COULD SOMEONE pass me the ketchup, please? I need something to eat with my hat.
Regular readers of these pages we call ‘INQ' will know that my past opinions of AR/VR have been less than positive. I've always viewed it with the attitude of Marvin from Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy: "Life's bad enough as it is without wanting to invent any more of it."
But a chance opportunity has changed everything. I had a surprise encounter with the fabled Magic Leap headset. Dismissed as vaporware by some, there's no doubt that it does exist, and the long gestation of the first device seems to have allowed the start-up to fix exactly the sort of petty irritants that put me off the idea in the first place.
My main concern has always been about the lack of portability - your virtual world has seldom taken you further than the length of an HDMI cable dangling from your noggin.
The Magic Leap offers instead a 'puck' about the size and consistency of a frozen Big Mac, which is designed to clip on a belt or over a rear jean pocket. The glasses are lightweight and relatively comfortable, with the headband worn more like a crown than a pair of swimming goggles.
Which is another thing. It has always struck me in the past that VR is the geek's equivalent of stilettos - pain before beauty - and yet the Magic Leap didn't feel like the air pressure in my eyeball was going to reduce me to, at best, a monocle wearer. This is the first time I've actually felt like I could forget I was wearing the kit.
There's the whole mapping-the-space thing you have to do before you start to play, which is still something of a faff, but at least it's over quickly.
First up, Angry Birds, or to be precise 'Angry Birds: FPS' (First-Person Slingshot). Well, where else was the franchise going to go? No more side view action. Oh no. This is pigs building structures on your carpet, little birds flying up to the controller, which renders in your headset as a catapult. And like some bizarre Wii mini-game, you use the slingshot, with the haptic feedback making the stretch-and-twang feel unnervingly realistic.
And of course, the birds and the pigs are animated and let's not mince words here, they look stunning, It was like Dejarik, the holographic chess game in Star Wars.
Second is an altogether more ambitious game, Dr Grordbort's Invaders, Greg Broadmore's bizarre steampunk sci-fi homage, with the voices of Rhys Darby and Stephen Fry.
And this is the point where suddenly, AR makes sense. Whether it's the haptic feedback as you push an imaginary button or the robots materialising from the walls, this is next level stuff. With each shot of my blaster (still the controller, but through the headset very much a blaster), I was genuinely concerned that the sparks being let rip by the ailing bots was setting fire to the carpet, such was the realistic physics.
Not only that, but I could use my naked hand, no controller needed, as a shield, able to absorb the blasts from the attacking robots. Yeah. In this world, my hand can block lasers. Deal with it.
Thing is, although that mapping is annoying, it does far more than spot obstacles, and that's what makes Magic Leap so promising. It recognises curtains to pop out from, sofas to hide behind and blank walls to turn into portholes. And in a few minutes configuration, that's impressive.
Is it perfect? No. Odd glitches still appeared, and if someone was in the wrong place when the room was being mapped? Everything ruined instantly. But this is more like what I hoped for from AR - no messy cables, the headset is little more than a pair of goggles, and the interaction with the surroundings is so accurate that I was scared I was breaking stuff.
And how I looked to the others in the room? Don't want to think about it.
It's not surprising then that, although these developer kits have appeared, priced at $2,295, we've got no definite date or price for a consumer model. There is some talk of it being there by Christmas, but which Christmas, we don't want to speculate.
But, we can now say categorically, it's not vaporware. It exists. And if it's this liberated (ie cable-free) and this impressive when it comes to launch, rivals might have something to worry about. Because I was prepared to hate it. And I loved it. μ
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