Living in a Land of Virtual Reality
Oculus Rift—the virtual reality goggles Kickstarted into existence—isn’t just a gamer’s dream, it’s a game-changer that Facebook bet $2 billion will alter the way we interact with technology and with the world around us.
When you think of virtual reality, what comes to mind? Maybe you’re picturing cyberpunk techno-goggles strapped to your head, lines of falling code across your vision that transform into ultra-convincing hyperreality—not unlike something out of The Matrix.
Depending on who you ask, “what comes to mind” is a loaded question, as virtual reality relies exclusively on its ability to fool the brain into accepting an artificially engineered world.
Virtual reality—VR, as it’s known in tech and gaming circles—is more than just “useless, twisting technology” as Jamiroquai ominously forewarned in their 1997 hit, “Virtual Insanity.” In fact, virtual reality is something on which Facebook is willing to gamble a $2 billion investment in the future with their acquisition of Oculus VR in 2014.
The Future is Coming
Following the Facebook acquisition of Oculus VR, the leader in virtual reality technology, Mark Zuckerberg posted a statement to his Facebook wall about Oculus:
“They build virtual reality technology, like the Oculus Rift headset. When you put it on, you enter a completely immersive computer-generated environment, like a game or a movie scene or a place far away. The incredible thing about the technology is that you feel like you’re actually present in another place with other people. People who try it say it’s different from anything they’ve ever experienced in their lives.
“Oculus’s mission is to enable you to experience the impossible. Their technology opens up the possibility of completely new kinds of experiences….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….Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the Internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones. The future is coming and we have a chance to build it together.”
Jeffrey Jacobson, PhD, virtual reality consultant, hands me the Oculus Rift headset, something that resembles a black boxy pair of ski goggles. Slipping it over my head, he tightens the straps. A demo is already playing and I’m looking at a virtual desk, complete with a lamp, potted plant, papers, and even a house of cards.
My first instinct is to reach out and touch these phantom objects in front of me, knowing full well they don’t actually exist. “Everyone does that the first time they try on the Rift,” Jacobson chuckles. As I look around the “room,” the Rift follows my movements seamlessly. I gasp as I look down and see my legs have been replaced with a bright red desk chair. The effect is disorienting.
Jacobsen switches the demo to a scenic Tuscan villa. In it, I chase butterflies that seem to flutter just past my cheeks. I stand on tiptoe to peer over a rustic stone fence, looking out over the ocean as flocks of birds and sailboats dot the cerulean horizon. I can almost feel the warmth of the sun on my face in this virtual world.
When I remove the Rift after fifteen minutes, it takes a minute or two for my brain to register the “real” world. It’s a peculiar, incongruous sensation that throws me off-kilter. It’s only then that I notice how nauseated I am, despite the smooth field of motion while wearing the Rift.
“That happens to a lot of people the first time,” Jacobson assures me. “The more you use it, the more you get used to it.” It takes another full minute for my brain to fully comprehend that a real live human being is speaking to me just now. Even with the computer-generated graphics of the Oculus Rift, it’s uncanny just how immersive the “reality” of virtual reality is—it is almost too convincing.
Still, I find myself instantly wondering what other virtual worlds I could explore, already itching to dive back in.
The Little VR Device That Could—And Did
So what, exactly, is this Oculus Rift that Facebook scooped up for a cool $2 billion?
The Oculus Rift is a head-mounted immersive virtual reality device that plugs into your computer. It tracks the movements of the person wearing it through both internal trackers and an external, computer-mounted camera. With some super-technical engineering magic and software tricks, the Rift does what no other VR headset has been able to accomplish: it immerses the wearer in a virtual reality without making them nauseated.
According to Albert “Skip” Rizzo, there are three core reasons why the Rift is changing the game for consumer-based VR: its cost, its wearability, and its wide field of view. “The Oculus Rift is the ideal,” he says.
Rizzo is the director for Medical Virtual Reality for the Institute for Creative Technologies at USC Davis, where he conducts research on the design, development, and evaluation of VR systems. A former student at his lab is credited with hacking together Oculus Rift’s first prototype in his parent’s garage in Long Beach, California, in 2011. “Palmer was the one who put it all together,” says Rizzo.
The “Palmer” of whom Rizzo speaks is none other than Palmer Luckey, the millennial inventor of the crowdfunded VR device known as the Oculus Rift. Luckey went off to create his own company when his prototype showed remarkable promise for the consumer market. The Oculus Rift came to fruition thanks to nearly ten thousand individual backers on Kickstarter, the creative crowdfunding site. With an original fundraising goal of just $250,000, the Oculus Rift raised ten times that amount in just thirty days. Previously only available as developer kits through the Kickstarter campaign, a consumer version of the Oculus Rift is anticipated for an April 2015 release. With Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR, Luckey’s name matches his fortune as one of Silicon Valley’s newest billionaires.
At least he can finally buy his own drink to celebrate: Luckey only turned twenty-one in September 2013.
Earning numerous awards from both the Consumer Electronics Show and Electronic Entertainment Expo, the Oculus Rift is best known for its applications in gaming. But there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to VR and the Rift is opening up possibilities beyond just video games.
“I like live audiences, with real people—virtual reality is no substitute,” Hillary Clinton told Vogue magazine in 1998. If only Hillary knew about Virtual Humans, a research area that Rizzo’s lab has been pioneering since 1999, she might have changed her tune. The artificially intelligent virtual patients can be used by clinicians to practice skills required for challenging clinical interviews and diagnostic assessments. And Virtual Humans are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to VR applications beyond gaming.
While VR technology has the potential to become a household commodity “as common as a toaster” one day soon, Rizzo predicts, virtual reality isn’t merely some frivolity: it has the potential to do everything from preserve our history and culture, to transform construction, aerospace, defense, education, journalism—and it can even save lives.
Virtual Reality Consultant Jeffrey Jacobson, PhD, argues the world we live in and interact with is an exercise in understanding what’s real.
“We do not live in physical space—we live in psychological space: that’s what matters to us. Depending on who we are, what we’re seeing and what it means to us, it looks different, it smells different and we think about these things differently.
No two people are going to see the same sofa, for example. For one person it’s an evil trap of laziness. For another, it’s nirvana. For another, it’s just a piece of furniture.”
From the Ground Up
As a VR consultant, Jeffrey Jacobson, PhD, predicts that enterprise uses for technology will shape the way companies do business. Most notably he’s seen this in the architectural industry.
By tweaking designs in the virtual world instead of after ground has been broken, the potential exists to save millions of dollars by eliminating unnecessary change orders. “When you’re working with a client and you’re trying to agree on a design, you can put them in it instead of relying on drawings or renderings,” Jacobson offers. “You can problem solve from within the design instead of outside it.”
In fact, VR is already being used by the cruise industry. Meyer Werft, the shipyard behind Celebrity Cruises’s award-winning Solstice Class ships, has a virtual reality lab that allows the naval architects, engineers, and designers to “tour” ships before the construction stage begins, helping to eliminate potential design flaws before they become actual flaws.
Echos of Our Past
In 2002, Vassilios Vlahakis, an engineer with Greek-based technology group Intracom S.A., revealed his revolutionary device and technology known collectively as Archeoguide. Using the ruins of Olympia, Greece, Vlahakis outfitted visitors with an augmented reality system where they could see beyond images projected in front of their eyes. With a complex system of receivers, transmitters, and cameras throughout the archeological site, visitors could see ghostly images of the once fully constructed buildings overlaid against the physical ruins —with just the click of a button.
As Vlahakis’s work shows, virtual reality is more than just strapping on a pair of goggles and escaping to an immersive environment. Rizzo discusses a recent project of the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) that’s preserving what history is left of the Holocaust through interactive first-person accounts of its survivors.
Partnering with USC’s Shoah Foundation Institute, researchers at the ICT brought in Holocaust survivors who were then scanned with 360-degree light-stage technology, capturing a complete three-dimensional composite of each survivor. This composite can then be projected as an eerily convincing digital hologram of the individual. They were then interviewed with thousands of questions about their experiences and their audio compiled into a “cortex.” From there, viewers could verbally interact with these virtual survivors with startling accuracy and clarity of conversation.
“In the future,” Rizzo says, “we’ll have holograms of presidents and other historical figures that any child writing a term paper can go up to in a museum and ask them directly about their lives.” And with Rizzo’s predictions about the coming commodity of VR devices, he says you won’t even have to go to the museum. He contends we’ll soon be able to plug Oculus Rift into our televisions and conduct our own private, immersive interviews from our living rooms.
The Power to Change Lives
Rizzo got his start in clinical psychology. With the Medical Virtual Reality research group at ICT, he’s helping to rehabilitate soldiers as they return to civilian life.
“We use the best technology to train our soldiers to fight our wars,” says Rizzo. He gets passionate as he continues, “We have a commitment to use best technology to help treat them when they come back from serving our country.”
Rizzo and his team developed Bravemind, an exposure-therapy tool to treat post-traumatic stress disorder with virtual reality. Using devices like the Oculus Rift, they can gradually expose a patient to their trauma in a completely controlled immersive environment, thereby lessening the effect of the trauma over time.
He and his team partnered with the Cerebral Palsy International Research Foundation to create VR games for children with cerebral palsy. While motor function rehabilitation is certainly one benefit of the project, it wasn’t their only goal. The project afforded these children a level playing field, raising the number of options for them to participate in everyday life—in other words, letting these children with cerebral palsy do what other kids can do, too.
Facebook’s $2 Billion Gamble on the Future
While futurists like Ray Kurzweil predict we’ll be uploading our consciousnesses into a virtual mainframe in the coming decades, Rizzo and Jacobson are far more practical, and see Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus Rift as an indicator of what’s to come. Both researchers agree that Zuckerberg has a savvy instinct to see just how much of a game changer the Oculus Rift is. Jacobson sees applications in movies, gaming, and entertainment as a natural development of the technology with Facebook.
“Zuckerberg is shrewd like a fox and looking ten years down the road,” muses Rizzo. He sees the potential for Facebook users to create shared experiences with friends scattered across the country with the Oculus Rift. It’s more than just virtual tourism: virtual reality could change the very way we interact with one another.
For now, the future of virtual reality remains to be seen—but it’s closer than ever thanks to the Oculus Rift. The question remains: will Facebook’s $2 billion gamble pay off? Only time will tell—and Zuckerberg’s playing his virtual cards close to his chest.
VR researcher Skip Rizzo predicts the Oculus Rift “will be like a toaster: every house has one, and you can throw it out and get a new one.” His sentiments aren’t too far off, as the Oculus Rift isn’t the only VR head-mounted device (HMD) out there. Samsung has partnered with Oculus to release the Gear VR, designed specifically for use with its Note 4 smartphones, taking advantage of the ubiquity of smartphone technology. There’s Sony’s Morpheus, modeled closely after the Rift. A Kickstarter-backed HMD called the Totem is set to provide fierce competition with only a slightly higher consumer price point than the Rift. Meanwhile, there’s AntVR, dubbed “China’s answer to the Oculus Rift.” As the demand for affordable consumer VR devices increases, so too will the competition as developers try to out-innovate one another.
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