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It’s the stuff of movies and childhood imagination, being transported to a virtual world. Whether the experience is a total or a partial immersion is the difference between virtual reality and augmented reality. In an augmented reality real life mixes with created elements. The best current example is Pokeman Go. You’ve probably either heard about it or have immersed yourself in it like others before did in Angry Birds or Tetris, depending on your generation. For the uninitiated you can get a quick primer on augmented reality and Pokemon Go here.
But today I’m going to be talking about virtual reality and in particular the Oculus Rift headset. So does putting on a headset really give the experience of being transported to an interactive virtual world of sight and sound? Yes and No. In a nutshell, the experience is impressive, but we’re still early in the process.
Oculus started as a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 and funded quickly and was eventually bought by Facebook for 2 billion dollars in July of 2014, well before it was ready for public consumption. Clearly they saw potential.
But just what is the potential? In a recent demo I experienced several scenes. Although they had a video game graphic feel from cartoonish to not quite video, it felt like you were somewhere else. Putting the headset on isn’t just like sitting really close to the movie theatre screen, it’s like sitting in the middle of the movie and interacting with it.
One scenario had me on the ledge of a high rise building in a city giving the sensation that one wrong step would take me to the street below. Look up, down and all around and you are there.
In another I was standing by a cartoon village that gave the perspective of looking at a train set complete with a village with buildings, trees, etc. I ‘walked’ up to it and could bend down and look at the details from any angle and perspective.
So how will this become more than a device for video game and pornography (sorry but let’s face it, it’s the elephant in the virtual room) enthusiasts? Let me speculate to just a couple other things I could foresee.
The uses from a design perspective are extensive. Go into a house or a high rise that is yet to be built and see windows and exposures at every time of year, wall colors, kitchen layouts, furniture placement and yard design.
Training for difficult tasks or dangerous jobs without real world consequences such as flying a plane, or training police or firefighters from anywhere.
And while we are speculating, how about a spherical camera with multiple cameras facing every direction that broadcasts live from the best seat at the Oscars or game 7 or from the top of a jeep on safari so anyone who connects can virtually be there. The potential is vast.
If you haven’t tried a VR headset you might be wondering how real does it feel. Of course there is not substitute for trying it yourself but maybe this will give you an idea.
The Oculus Rift is not a standalone device. It requires a PC based computer and likes an advanced graphics card. Unless you are the ‘gotta have it first at any expense’ type I would hold off (their hard to get anyway). It is pricey at $600 but even more significant, as is usually the case with new technology, the content offered is very limited.
It’s all very exciting but potentially sad as well. Will it lock us into virtual worlds and diminish the need or desire for real experience and adventure? Will the walls of the basement we burrow in replace walking the streets of Paris or even the ones outside our front door? It’s too early to say but it’s not too early to start grappling with the real implications, benefits and potential unintended consequences that come with a virtual world.