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Virtual Reality and the Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift Oculus VR

Image courtesy of Oculus VR

Eugene Gan - published on 06/06/14

They are headed your way--sooner than you think.

Technology that we wear, glasses that transpose information on our surroundings, headsets that immerse us in new virtual spaces–multiple new wearable smart devices are set to be released soon. A few have already been released to developers and early adopters. And you’re going to have to make some choices about the types of wearable smart devices you embrace, or not. You want to be smart about your decisions by paying close attention to some key issues about wearable tech.

For starters, you’ve likely heard of the Oculus Rift by now. For the uninitiated, it’s the super popular virtual reality headset that is set to change how we work and play. For those who have tried VR-immersive technologies in the past and have gone away underwhelmed, or, like me, tired of the nausea that it invariably induces, the new Oculus Rift changes all that. To get the most out of reading this, you ought first to watch

three minute clip.

That clip went viral with over 2.3 million views, and there are a number of similar home videos making the rounds – from folks getting so immersed in the VR experience that they lose a sense of balance and need someone behind them to hold them up, to other elderly folks and even two-year olds getting in on the Rift experience.

The Rift itself is a very recent development. In 2011, a homeschooled, then-18 year old Palmer Luckey hacked together components from other VR headsets in his Southern California basement. He did so because he was greatly dissatisfied with the more than 50 virtual headsets he owned, which incidentally, also contributed to his claim of its being the largest private collection in the world. By 2012, Luckey’s updates and posts about his Rift gained popularity on the 3D gaming forum "Meant To Be Seen."

One of those fascinated forum members was none other than John Carmack, founder of id Software, the studio that came up with the genre-defining games "Wolfenstein 3D", "Doom," and "Quake." Carmack obtained a prototype of the Rift unit from Luckey and proceeded to show it around at the E3 video gaming conference. That year, possibly solely because of the Rift, the subject of VR headgear was resurrected and became a hot topic of conversation once again.

From that moment forward, the story of the Rift (and correspondingly, the idea of practicable VR headgear) gained incredible momentum. It accelerated when Oculus decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign that promised fully assembled Rift units to anyone who pledged $300 or more. (Luckey needn’t have worried about his $250,000 funding threshold not being met.)

Within hours of his Kickstarter campaign going live, the pledges were at $2.4 million. (It was reportedly selling at four to five units per minute in the first day alone.) If nothing else, this public commitment alone reveals a vibrant and widespread interest in the virtual reality experience.

Riding the crest of a new wave of optimism about virtual reality, Oculus showcased an HD version of the Rift at the 2013 E3 Conference. Then, in early 2014, increasingly more advanced units of the Rift were revealed, first at CES in January and again at the Game Developers Conference in March. March marked yet another momentous occasion for the Rift when it was announced that Facebook purchased it for $2 billion. That’s $2billion for a VR headset technology that is still in development and hasn’t even hit the store shelves yet.

At the announcement of the acquisition, Mark Zuckerberg was quoted as saying: “Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting with a doctor face-to-face—just by putting on goggles in your home.” Notice, there is no mention of using VR for online social networking. 

Forward two months later to May 2014, when ZeniMax with its subsidiary id Software filed suit against Oculus VR and its founder Luckey “for illegally misappropriating ZeniMax trade secrets relating to virtual reality technology, and infringing ZeniMax copyrights and trademarks." (At this point, Carmack had left id Software to join Luckey in the development of the Oculus Rift).

Truth be told, virtual reality headsets per se are not new technology. The idea had been around for decades. Early models of such headsets were nausea-inducing experiences that left much to be desired. It just wasn’t worth the virtual experience. The Oculus improves on this aspect greatly. To achieve a seamless and non-headache-inducing depth of immersion requires certain conditions be met. These include:

1)High frame rate (The higher the number of frames per second, the smoother the movements.)

2) Low latency (The less the lag between human movement and headset response, the lower the probability of experiencing nausea.)

3) Wide field of view (A field of view that completely covers your peripheral vision gives a better sense of immersion and presence.)

The Oculus uses low persistence OLED to eliminate motion blur and judders. It has within it a gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetometer, and together with an external camera that monitors infrared LEDs on the headset, allows the wearer to move freely and interact realistically with its virtual objects and environment. All that’s really missing is some feedback that allows you to actually feel the object being touched.

This much is clear: wearable virtual headsets are not just another tech toy or flash-in-the-pan fad. Much like the web browser that has become ubiquitous for accessing and interacting with a broad spectrum of content (Remember a time when going online meant using a text interface on a board?), virtual headsets are enablers for a whole host of content that still hasn’t been imagined yet.

We’re not talking about “mere” video games or 3-D movies, though I’m sure that for some, VR games and stereoscopic movies are reasons enough. Even the king of summer blockbuster hits, "Transformers" director Michael Bay, recently admitted that 3-D movies are going out of style. The Rift and other similar genre VR headsets aren’t about 3-D movies, although they can be. They aren’t even about video games. The Rift is about 3D, without the hyphen, meaning that it’s about tricking the brain into thinking that there is an alternate world that exists when you put on the headset. You’re experiencing the three dimensions of a virtual world, a virtual space that can be so real it competes with reality for attention. It’s less about immersion and more about presence.

The brain really thinks it’s there –to whatever program you have loaded to take you wherever you’ve chosen to be, an infinite realm of virtual possibilities limited only by the imagination. Imagine shopping for a house from miles away. Or taking vacations to exotic locales from the comfort of your living room couch. Or this possibility: What would happen if you could go down the proverbial rabbit hole and do an “Inception” by putting yourself on a virtual Rift while you’re wearing the Rift and then experience yourself in VR in VR in VR, forever?

Does reality have a competitor? Will virtual reality ever become so real that it could one day replace real-world experience? Would this be a good thing? What would you like to see the Rift do?

Dr Eugene Ganis faculty associate of the Veritas Center and Professor of Interactive Media, Communications, and Fine Art at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the United States. His latest book is"Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media."

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