We’ve been talking about virtual reality for decades now, but recent advances in display technology, and miniaturization thanks to smartphones has finally made it possible to have VR technology which is up to the quality standards required to give users a good experience, at consumer-friendly prices.

While companies like Epson and Sony are making their own wearable displays, the most promising device right now, for virtual reality, is the crowdfunded Oculus Rift, which doesn’t just place a 3D display with a giant field of view on your face, putting you inside the game. It goes a step further by integrating head tracking – turn your head in real life and the display also changes to match, making it feel exactly like turning your head “inside" the game.

The technology grew out of gaming – Oculus’ creator, Palmer Luckey, showed the technology to legendary game developer John Carmack. Carmack was impressed, and used the technology to show off the remastered version of Doom III. The device would be further evangelized by game developers such as Valve’s Gabe Newell, and Cliff Bleszinski. So it’s only natural that a lot of the early buzz around the Rift and its Kickstarter crowdfunding phase was centered around gaming.

The Rift development kits have reached the developers and enthusiasts who supported the Kickstarter and a lot of the early uses have been keen to translate existing games, like Mirror’s Edge, Team Fortress 2, and Skyrim, to use with the Rift.

But a number of new experiences have also emerged. Perhaps the best example is a YouTube video which went viral, getting nearly 2 million views since it was uploaded one month ago. She wasn’t playing a game – she was seeing a demo where you walk around a virtual Tuscany.

Another amazing experience is Spacewalk, created by a group of University of Southern California students for their MFA program, made in just five days.

There’s no “game", exactly. Spacewalk is just that – a chance to walk around in space on the International Space Station, hearing your breath in an astronaut’s suit, with no real up or down – you press buttons on a controller to fire thrusters on your suit, maneuvering in space while Earth hangs off to one side.

That’s the promise of the Rift – it will put all experiences within people’s reach. Whether you want to be a tourist walking through the Vatican, or an astronaut in space, the Rift can deliver the most compelling experience we’ve ever seen. That’s something that can be understood by, and appeal to, everyone, and not just gamers.

At a time when Microsoft and Sony are launching new games with better graphics and not much else to offer, at a time when they’re chasing wide adoption by adding better support for television watching, and social media functions, a small device, funded not by a corporation but by enthusiasts is the first to figure out what it is that is needed to make new gaming hardware exciting again.

This weekly series, which appears on Mondays, talks about all things play—from real to virtual, stadiums to playstations, and football games to board games.

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