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How the Oculus Rift is Changing Virtual Reality

The virtual reality (VR) headset, as any gamer will tell you, has undergone a myriad of transformations over the years, some clunky, some sleek, but all sharing the common themes of disorientation and motion sickness, known in this context as simulation sickness.

Simulation sickness is similar to motion sickness, except that your brain thinks you’re moving, while your body knows it’s sitting still. As technology journalist Lauren Orsini described it, “the eyes see motion but the inner ear feels nothing. It’s motion sickness in reverse,” and it was pretty much the expected adjunct to any VR adventure.

Until now.

Not yet ready for consumers, the Oculus Rift, pioneered by the endlessly innovative folk at Facebook-owned Oculus VR, has a lot of people talking, not least because it appears to have conquered the simulation sickness problem by devising a way to keep the eyes from perceiving erratic motion.

Suddenly, the floodgates to the VR arena flew open. “The most important moment of my life in VR was when I saw this kind of quality experience. It was the time where I knew VR was finally going to work. Not just for me, but for everybody,” says Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus. “That switch flipped in the back of my head that said you really are there in this virtual space.”

A brand new industry... sort of

Iribe describes VR as a “brand new industry… we’re just at the beginning” while acknowledging that the technology itself has deep roots in past efforts. “What is the killer application for VR? Again, it’s too early to say. We just don’t know what that application’s going to be that most people are going to use. What game, or what real-time entertainment application… or is it going to be face-to-face communication?” he said.

“For me the real time when this is going to change the world is when we can have real-time face-to-face conversation,” he said, suggesting that virtual reality will become an alternative to traveling for meetings, as one example.

“Most people travel, and we get on airplanes and cars to go have face-to-face communications. If you could in the future throw on a pair of sunglasses and we could have that same conversation with people around the world… looking at each other’s eyes, looking in each other’s mouths… that’s really transformative,” said Iribe.

How does it work?

The Rift fits snugly over the user’s face, paired with headphones for a fully immersive, virtual environment that responds to head movements.

The Oculus Rift promises an immersive experience. Photo Credit: Wearable World News

Kevin Ohannessian, a freelance writer who covers gaming and technology, explains how it works: “Picture a set of ski goggles in which a large cellphone screen replaces the glass. The screen displays two images side-by-side, one for each eye. A set of lenses is placed on top of the screen, focusing and reshaping the picture for each eye, and creating a stereoscopic 3D image. The goggles have embedded sensors that monitor the wearer's head motions and adjust the image accordingly. The latest version of the Oculus Rift is bolstered by an external positional-tracking accessory, which helps track head movements more accurately. The result is the sensation that you are looking around a 3D world.”

In the Rift’s most recent iteration, the camera capturing movement sees an even larger volume, which means the imaginary boundary where the camera stops working is much bigger than before. Ohannessian exults that “this allows me to move around the virtual space, walking for several feet in any direction, as well as stretching low to the ground. This freedom of movement inside the digital world seen through the headset makes it feel like a real place.”

With the Oculus Rift, you can “stand inside a submarine, watch a velociraptor, examine an insect at a microscopic

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level, go camping with some animals in a field, look down at a futuristic map UI, examine a papercraft town up close, float through a Tron-esque cyber-world, and [end] with a walk through a destructive firefight between a SWAT team and a towering robot in slow motion.” Ohannessian admits that “there are moments during the demos when you forget it is a digital creation that is static.”

Not Just For Gamers Anymore

Facebook hopes developers will create lots of non-gaming experiences, too, with social networking (and, ultimately, advertising) built in. As one user from Texas observed, “In sports, it has been proven that sitting and thinking about shooting a basket is as good as actually taking a ball in hand to practice shooting baskets. What could a virtual experience through Rift do to improve a person's game? Observing a model of any behavior is one of the ways to learn, but here a person could experience a behavior him/herself, not just observe it and do so in a safe learning environment.”

Another user added, “Think of a person being trained with Oculus Rift technology in ways to encourage others, specifically a school teacher learning proven ways of encouragement. After experiencing the behavior through virtual reality, s/he would be more likely to encourage the students in class.”

Kevin Ohannessian notes that “filmmakers have begun to experiment with the Oculus Rift to make an audience member feel like he or she is part of the film — from being onstage at a recorded concert to seeing a whole film from a single character's point of view, complete with the ability to look around and explore each scene. Films like this could blur the line between cinema and gaming.”

Taking the show on the road

At the Detroit Auto Show, Toyota installed Toyota’s new app for the Oculus Rift, the TeenDrive365, in a stationary car, with visitors able to “virtually drive using the car’s wheel and pedals, while experiencing the results of their focusing skills on the headset’s screen.” The app is part of a wider campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of “distracted driving,” challenging people, especially young drivers, to drive safely amid distractions from virtual text messages, passengers, radio and traffic noise.

Toyota is using Oculus Rift to warn people about distracted driving. Photo Credit:Bidness Etc.

“Oculus Rift provides a virtual reality driving experience that mirrors real life behind the wheel, giving us a powerful, one-of-a-kind way to show parents and teens how everyday distractions can affect their ability to drive safely,” said Toyota’s corporate marketing director Marjorie Schussel as the app launched.

Scientific applications of VR

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany have already been studying human perception with the help of VR, employing special hardware and experimental constructions. This enables them to conduct their experiments in controlled and yet natural surroundings, such as their Tracking Lab, a 15 x 12 meter space where experiments dealing with the perception of space and the navigation achievements are carried out. Subjects sport helmet mounted displays, such as the Oculus Rift, to project their virtual surroundings and are allowed to move around freely in these virtual worlds.

Remember the Star Trek Holodeck? Research scientist Joachim Tesch used the Oculus Rift to create a real life

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Holodeck in the Tracking Lab and seeks to integrate modern game technologies into VR experimental set-ups, such as with flight simulation.To replicate the experience of being in a Star Trek holodeck, the team uses a wireless Oculus Rift headset, allowing their test subjects to walk around the room unhindered, thanks to multiple infrared cameras set up around the room, which then communicate with the wireless headset.

It may not be a true holodeck, but scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Science have managed to create their own version with an Oculus Rift headset and a room full of cameras. Photo Credit: Teche Blog

Joachim Tesch explains how the Oculus-powered Holodeck works below:

So, just a Trekkie's playground? Not really. Tesch explains “My main task is to make it easy for our scientists to conduct experiments in our existing and future VR setups. This encompasses both the hardware side with our display and tracking technologies as well as the software side … [requiring] integration of VR hardware, deployment of new visualization solutions and also development of … real-time visualization components for specific experiments.”

Prof. Dr. Heinrich H. Bülthoff, Director of the Department of Human Perception, Cognition and Action at the Institute explains that it is actually easier for them to conduct research in a virtual reality facility because they can maintain “controllable and reproducible test surroundings. Real surroundings look quite different depending on the weather or the time of day. In VR all these conditions can be kept constant for an experiment. Every experimental subject sees precisely the same space or scene. Nevertheless, these conditions can also be specifically modified, should it be important for the experiment. Sometimes even experiments are carried out, which would not be possible in the real world or only with large efforts at one single place.”

The Human Side of VR

Diagnosed with cancer and given only one or two months to live, Roberta Firstenberg told her granddaughter Priscilla that her greatest wish was to go outside again, even if that meant only walking around her front yard. Her granddaughter Priscilla, a Seattle-based video game developer, had an idea that the Oculus Rift could help her grandmother "go" outside once more. She contacted Oculus about getting one of their headsets for her grandmother's use. The next day, Oculus Customer Service responded that her email had "made its rounds within the Support group, and it was a unanimous decision that we needed to help you out." Shortly thereafter, an Oculus Rift developer's kit arrived on their doorstep.

Roberta Firstenberg described using the virtual reality headset as “like a therapy.” Priscilla recorded her grandmother's first reactions to using the headset in this video. "Before long," reported the Daily Mail, "Roberta was walking through a virtual Tuscan villa, trying to catch butterflies and admiring the sunshine."

Roberta passed away a month later, but her experience--and the very idea itself--is a gift to others nearing the end of life who may be able to harness the power of the Oculus Rift to relive their sweetest memories. The developers at The Rift Arcade write that "Roberta’s experience with the Oculus Rift only hints at the possibilities that virtual reality affords. It’s escapism in its most visceral form, transforming [people's] lives."

Other Players in the VR game

Facebook is far from the only company pursuing VR, which is littered with failed attempts reaching back years. Several companies are currently developing competitive alternatives.

Google, of course, premiered its augmented reality Google Glass in April 2013, which connected the internet to an individual user’s everyday view. In June 2014, Google revealed Cardboard, an attempt at mobile virtual reality, and offered instructions for users to create their own.

Samsung has developed a VR headset for use with a mobile phone, the Gear VR. It has an onboard motion sensor to overcome smartphones’ substandard-for-VR accelerometers, and was designed to work with a single product, the Galaxy Note 4. Sony has announced the development of “Project Morpheus," a VR system that takes the PlayStation 4 to the next level of immersion.

Nintendo game designer Shigeru Miyamoto doubts, on the other hand, whether VR gaming headsets are the best way for people to engage in interactive gaming. Nintendo designed its Wii to be a game system “fun not only for the person who’s playing, but also for the people who are watching,” Miyamoto told Time. VR, on the other hand, is “one person putting on some goggles and playing by themselves kind of over in a corner, or maybe they go into a separate room and they spend all their time alone playing in that virtual reality,” which is “in direct contrast” with what Nintendo hopes to achieve with its product.

Like Oculus, a Montreal start-up called Vrana began a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to bring its virtual reality headset, the Totem, to the next level and eventually ready it for mass production. Vrana anticipates that, in addition to gaming applications, Totem will appear “in medical or aviation simulations as well as educational and virtual tourism situations.” Unlike the Rift, the Totem offers front-facing video cameras permitting users to switch their view from reality to a mixture of real and virtual worlds.

How VR Will Change YOU

VR’s potential applications aren’t limited to external experiences. Taking a more philosophical bent, Jaron Lanier, who founded the first VR company, VPL Research, in 1983, suggests that “[t]he most important thing about virtual reality isn't the idea that you're seeing this dramatic 3D thing. It's that you, yourself change . . . That you experience yourself in a different way than you ever have before. That you experience being a creature or being able to do things like fly, that you wouldn't otherwise.”