Passers-by take Facebook up on its offer to test drive a virtual reality headset at Schaumburg's Woodfield Mall on Nov. 1, 2016.
Le e Mitchell knew there wasn't really an asteroid drifting past him, just a few feet to the right. But he couldn't help stretching out a hand to touch it.
"It just seemed so real," said a slightly awestruck Mitchell, 25, of Chicago. "It's like going to a part of the world you've never seen."
Mitchell, who works at Woodfield Mall, was one of the passers-by who took Facebook up on its offer to test drive a virtual reality headset at the Schaumburg mall on Tuesday.
Companies developing the technology and electronics retailers are hoping plenty of headsets will be placed under Christmas trees this year. But getting virtual technology to take off still relies on old-fashioned real-world demonstrations.
People who haven't experienced it — particularly nongamers — often don't understand how they would use it or why they would want it. That's a big hurdle, and a reason sellers are going out of their way to convince consumers to give the headsets a try in the months leading up to the holidays.
"Virtual reality is incredibly immersive and provides an incredible sense of presence, which can be hard for people to imagine without a demo," said Andrea Schubert, communications manager with virtual reality technology maker Oculus.
Companies selling virtual reality headsets are going out of their way to encourage customers to give the technology a try.
Facebook, Oculus' parent company, is bringing a sort of "Virtual Reality 101" experience to more than two dozen cities this holiday season.
At the Woodfield Mall pop-up, open through Jan. 3, people with black plastic headsets masking their eyes turned in slow circles, heads darting up, down and side to side, watched by a chaperone ensuring that as they explored the virtual world they saw, they didn't stumble into the very real glass wall nearby.
A two-minute video puts viewers nose-to-nose with a dinosaur, floating in space, and facing LeBron James at center court, listening to the basketball's hollow thunk. Each viewer leaves with an animated photo of themselves wearing the headset that they're encouraged to share on Facebook.
Similar demos will be offered at Millennium Park's Cloud Gate sculpture Nov. 17-20, 23 and 25-27.
Meanwhile, Best Buy wants to be a "destination" for virtual reality technology, Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly said on a call with analysts in August.
In May, Best Buy began offering Oculus Rift demos at 48 stores. Now hundreds offer demos of the Rift headset and Touch controllers. About 200 stores — 17 in the Chicago area — will be giving demos of another platform, PlayStation Virtual Reality, that lets customers virtually swim with sharks or don Batman's cape, through the holidays.
Earlier attempts at virtual reality flopped, but the technology has improved and a wide range of price points makes it more accessible, said Ben Arnold, consumer electronics analyst with The NPD Group.
Facebook's Oculus makes some of the more immersive virtual reality technology on the market, including the Rift headset, designed for gaming, but the demos use the more accessible Samsung Gear VR. At about $100, it's one-sixth the price of the Rift, doesn't require a high-end PC and is likely an easier sell for the first-time users Facebook hopes to find at its events.
Arnold said he thinks most people buying today are curious early adopters.
Forrester Research analysts estimated U.S. consumer demand for midrange and high-end virtual reality technology — excluding cheap cardboard sets — would hit 24 million by 2020, up from a relatively tiny 2.4 million headsets this year. According to Schubert, 1 million people use some type of virtual reality each month.
Even Joly said he doesn't expect virtual reality to have a big impact on sales this year, held back by limited availability and technology that's "early in the cycle."
There still aren't that many headsets on the market. Some smartphone-powered ones only work with certain devices, while the most advanced versions require a high-end PC or video game console. It will also take time to develop more content and applications, particularly for potential customers who aren't interested in video games.
Then there's the retail challenge of getting customers in stores to give it a try.
"Virtual reality is an experiential technology," Arnold said. "And if you don't try it out, you're not going to know if it makes you nauseous or not."