November 12, 2014

Virtual Reality: A Novelty or Not?

By Megan G. 

Last week on Tek Shouts!, I wrote about some horror titles created specifically for the virtual reality headset, Oculus Rift.  Today, let’s highlight some recent updates, as well as its possible capabilities beyond gaming.  Oculus VR, the company that manufactures the Rift, is headed by Rift-creator Palmer Luckey and CEO Brendan Iribe.  The most recent version of the headset, Crescent Bay, features integrated audio and full positional tracking.  Iribe reports that the Oculus Rift is “many months” away from hitting the shelves, but ensures that Crescent Bay is quite close to the final, consumer product.

Virtual reality technology is not new;  VR products first surfaced in the late ‘80s and ‘90s.  Consumer interest eventually petered out, however, because of the devices’ high costs and unwieldy designs.  Is the Oculus Rift different, or will it leave people nauseated, bored, or falling on their bums?  Thanks to a streamlined design and the financial support of a social media giant, the Rift has the potential for greater consumer accessibility and longevity.

The Oculus Rift Sails to the Mainstream

In March of this year, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg bought Oculus VR for $2 billion after being impressed by the Rift’s capabilities.  This financial boost gives Oculus team more time to create a solid VR device that has the ability to last beyond the lifetime of its ancestors.  Oculus VR has used these FB funds to flesh out their research and development division.

Zuckerberg posted a FB status update on March 25th, excited to acquire “the leader in virtual reality technology.”  He said that the Rift’s content will consist of games at first, but will eventually feature interactive social experiences, such as sitting in awesome seats at a sports game or studying in a classroom with students and teachers from around the world.  The social media king plans to create make an advanced communications platform.  Facebook’s influence  should ensure that the Oculus Rift will be a more mainstream and affordable product.

Hitches and Glitches

Two main issues have held back the Rift from wide release, and those are consumer comfort and a quality input device (in laymen’s terms, a controller).  To remedy the latter problem, Oculus VR has partnered with Carbon Design Group, the company responsible for the Xbox 360 controller.  Iribe stated that the older Rift development kits didn’t have the “magic” that Carbon now brings to the project. 

In terms of comfort, Oculus VR still has “a ways to go.” reports “gnarly chafe marks” around Rift-users’ eyes from wearing the headset too long, but Oculus VR’s chief concern is offering the most comfortable and entertaining VR experience possible.  They will not release the Rift until they overcome the “big challenge” of consumer comfort.

Throwing Down the Gauntlet 

At the recent Web Summit in Dublin, CEO Iribe offered a friendly warning to potential competitors in the VR field.  He worries that larger companies will rush out virtual reality devices that cause “disorientation and motion sickness.”  Iribe invites competitors to try the Oculus Rift, and then make something “good or close.”  He doesn’t want anyone to “poison the well” of the emerging virtual reality industry.  Sony, with Project Morpheus, is Oculus VR’s most formidable opponent.  A headset similar to the Rift, Morpheus will be exclusive to the Playstation 4 system, and utilize Playstation Move controllers.

A more affordable VR headset, currently a mere $25, is Google’s Cardboard.  Developed at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris, this headset is crafted, literally, from a cardboard box—and your smartphone screen acts as the display!  Check out the Google Cardboard page to see exactly how it’s constructed.  The most recent version of the Oculus Rift costs $350, and it requires a high-powered computer to function optimally.  If you’re searching for a cheap way to experience virtual reality, then Cardboard is the way to go.    

Further Virtual Avenues

A major criticism of the Oculus Rift is novelty.  Does it have the staying power to last a few months after its release?  The answer lies in areas beyond self-contained experiences. 

Zuckerberg and Iribe promote the  possibility of the Rift as a social platform.  “Imagine going shopping in a virtual store just by putting on goggles in your own home,” or attending meetings across the globe.  Skype already provides the ability for faraway communications, but as the VR industry grows, people could become more than just a talking head on a laptop screen.  They can virtually walk through their friend’s dorm room and sit with them, or walk up to a whiteboard during a meeting to point something out.  VR can turn a detached social media experience into a “real” one—at least, that is what Zuckerberg and Iribe hope.  Another field utilizing VR technology is medicine.  Albert Rizzo from the University of Southern California has created demonstration applications to assist in treating patients with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit disorder, as well as patients recovering from strokes.

By offering a high quality experience, and venturing into industries beyond gaming and film, the Oculus Rift has the potential to break past novelty.  The developers have high hopes for both the capabilities and sales of the Oculus Rift, and according to various Rift reviews, it seems that the headset will certainly shake up the way gamers play—even if it does not become the major computing platform its parents want it to be. 

Do you think virtual reality is still only a novelty?  Which VR advancements are you most interested in seeing develop?  Let the Tek Team know in the comments! 

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