A couple of months ago, I met Cory Strassburger, a visual-effects artist and filmmaker, at the creative development studio Kite & Lightning. Strassburger is tall and wiry, with somewhat villainous facial hair on a friendly face. His studio is housed in a fancy branding company in Hollywood and is dominated by a mysterious polygonal metal structure with a platform inside. It looks like a massage table stuck inside a geodesic dome.

Strassburger was excited to preside over my initiation into virtual reality. He placed an Oculus Rift headset on my head and instructed me to adjust the goggles until the Kite & Lightning logo came into focus. Then he told me to close my eyes.

When I open them, I'm in an industrial elevator, going down. (For a panicky instant, I feel as though I've been dropped into a nightmare, and I want to get out.) When the elevator stops, I emerge in a tenebrous cavern shot through with shafts of light. Bats scatter in all directions. I look down and see a metal latticework grid suspended over a deep, dark pit. I look up and see a rocky, pitted ceiling high above me. I don't have a body. It's like I've poked my head into another dimension.

When I took off the headset, I felt as though I'd just removed my head.

I hadn't thought much about virtual reality since, I don't know, the last Matrix movie came out. After a month of exploring virtual worlds, my perspective was so radically altered that at one point, milling around the San Francisco airport waiting for a flight, I had a vision of the near future in which all the people around me poking at their phones (which is to say basically all the people around me) had traded in those phones for head-mounted virtual reality displays, and this fad of showing our eyes in public would finally be a thing of the past.

The Oculus Rift — likely on sale next year — has already, almost single-handedly, revived the dormant dream of virtual reality as a mass medium. (Sony and Samsung have similar gear in the works.) Designed by the home-schooled boy genius Palmer Luckey and seed-funded by Kickstarter backers, the Rift combines stereoscopic 3-D, 360-degree visuals, and a 100-degree field of view, which trick the brain into thinking the eyes are looking at actual surroundings. Computer scientists have been messing around with this kind of hardware for more than two decades. What makes the Rift different is that it mostly solves the persistent problem of simulation sickness (if you turn your head and the digital view lags behind, you get dizzy), and it can be made inexpensively. For roughly the price of a video game console, you and everyone you know will soon be able to buy one — which is one reason why, earlier this year, Facebook paid $2 billion to acquire Oculus VR, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company will continue to "invest heavily" in the medium.

Originally, Luckey imagined the Rift as a platform for immersive gaming. But its potential to transform storytelling — through games, yes, but also television and film — could have far wider reach and be stealthily culture-shifting. Stories help us make sense of a world that would otherwise seem chaotic and unpredictable, and derive meaning from lives that might otherwise seem pointless and random. And stories, as Marshall McLuhan famously observed, adapt to the mediums that convey them. The ultimate story of virtual reality may turn out to be a story about stories and how we co-evolve with them.

Filmmakers, animators, visual-effects artists, and journalists have begun experimenting with short features, documentary films, and art projects that immerse viewers deep in other worlds. In February of this year, Oculus hired a director of film and media, Eugene Chung, and started pitching the platform to Hollywood studios. The directors James Cameron, Guillermo del Toro, and Alfonso Cuarón have all expressed interest in the technology. My tour of the virtual reality lab at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts was interrupted — with so much fanfare and advance security that for a minute we thought we were about to meet the president — by an unannounced visit from Will Smith. And this spring, the screenplay guru Franklin Leonard, creator of The Black List, helped Oculus organize a get-together for about 30 screenwriters at the Hollywood Hills home of screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks, Fifty Shades of Grey) to introduce them to the medium and spark a discussion about how it might be used to tell stories.

"I want to see a mystery. I want to see a VR noir," said one of Leonard's guests, Joshua Zetumer, who worked on this year's RoboCop reboot. "Just using the Oculus has a built-in sense of mystery. You strap on the goggles; instantly you're thrust into an environment that's not your own. Your first thoughts are, 'OK, where am I? What am I doing here?'" he said. "You're like a patient waking from a coma. Or a man washing up on a beach, with no memories of his past life." Leigh Whannell, who created the Saw franchise, was especially enthusiastic. "Every time I run into him," Leonard told me, "he says, 'Man, that was amazing; I can't stop thinking about it.'" Leonard added: "There was a general consensus that the most obvious opportunity was for horror — but it might be too scary."

Strassburger showed me another film, a moody, lyrical mini-opera in which I travel down the river Styx from a beautiful mountain landscape into a sinister volcanic hell. At one point, I turn to the left and see the head of a bald, pale giant, his eyebrows and lashes caked with frost. It's impossible to convey how menacing he is. The ability to get uncomfortably close to someone, a real person or a fictional character, is one of the uncanniest aspects of virtual reality. Last summer, Strassburger told me, he ported to the Rift a photorealistic 3-D model of a bikini-clad Budweiser girl he'd rendered for a demo, so he could look at the work up close. Too close, it turned out. "I had this immediate feeling of, like, 'I'm invading her space!'" he said. "Being in somebody else's presence is a huge thing. It becomes a new ingredient for the filmmaker. How does it affect the story? How do you work with it?"

Virtual reality presents all manner of brand-new technical and narrative challenges. Whether or not we're consciously aware of its existence, we're all fluent in the language of cinema. We're native speakers. Virtual reality is in such a germinal phase that to use it as a medium to tell stories is to participate in creating a whole new language. The morphemes of cinema — framing, cutting, close-ups, pans, zooms — disappear or stop making sense. It's no longer obvious how a filmmaker directs attention or advances plot. What about perspective and point of view? Should the viewer be free to explore a world or follow a set path through a story — on rails, as gamers say? Should characters respond to your presence?

Finally, it was time for me to climb into the bed-dome contraption, affixed with a dozen speakers. I put the Oculus headset back on. The view through the headset looks just like the room around me. At first I think I'm looking through the goggles at the ceiling. Then, music begins to vibrate through my body, and the ceiling detaches and flies away, and I'm floating in space. Small fiery suns swirl around me and hover so close I have to stop myself from reaching out. As I soar around this vast, luminous, imaginary cosmos, I surrender completely to the experience.