This is not a toy: Oculus Rift's virtual talents could transform real lives

“One of the biggest problems of VR nowadays is that the complete setup to build an immersive environment is too expensive—a minimum of 10,000 euros or more—for the mass market and many institutions, [such as] schools,” says Mossel.

With such a sky-high barrier to entry, VR adoption has largely been limited to universities, government programs, pilot-training simulators, and occasional industrial uses. Mainstream penetration is virtually nil, which is hardly surprising when taking a tour through virtual worlds pretty much costs a physical arm and a leg.

Then there’s the Oculus Rift.

Oculus VR managed to move more than 7500 developer versions of its headset (priced at $300) in its 30 days on Kickstarter, and the company is still accepting dev kit orders through its website. At E3, Iribe told me that the final consumer version of the Rift will “almost certainly” cost less than $500 at launch. How does Oculus manufacture the Rift so cheaply? Simple: By using commodity components like the ones in your smartphone.

“Just a couple of years ago, the goggles were $50,000 to $100,000 a pop,” says de la Peña. “So when I started begging these [university] labs to let me in to work years ago, it was thoroughly begging to get in and get access to the equipment. And now I’m building stuff in [the Unity engine], on my own, with systems that are accessible to anybody. That’s extraordinary.”

Beyond the rift

Razer Hydra
VR researchers love Razer's Hydra motion controller, which costs even less than dirt-cheap tablets.

De la Peña’s Unity talk brings up an important point: The Oculus Rift isn’t alone in driving the potential for mainstream VR forward.

The rise of ubiquitous, licensable game engines like Epic’s Unreal Engine and Unity3D—both of which support the Rift, by the way—has made creating VR-accessible worlds much less complicated than it used to be. And if Oculus has anything to say about it, such efforts will only get easier as time goes on. Iribe says that much of the $16 million in venture funding that Oculus VR recently secured will be used to ramp up staffing, to improve training, and to upgrade support for software developers.

“VR is a new category of development,” says Iribe. “There are a lot of challenges to it…For developers to go out there and make really compelling VR applications and games, they’re going to need help. And they’re going to need support, and they’re going to need documentation, and they’re going to need tutorials, because it’s new.”

But the real star of the show is the commoditization of VR-compatible hardware, and it doesn’t end with the Rift.

CCP's Oculus Rift–compatible EVR game makes do with gamepads, but nongaming VR apps work best with more-natural interfaces.

Virtual reality involves more than a head-mounted display. To feel truly involved, you need a way to interact with your digital environment. Games tend to use simple gamepads, which work fine for amusing diversions. (Ask anyone who played CCP’s amazing Oculus Rift game, EVR, at E3! Check it out above.) But serious VR use requires more-natural interfaces than thumbsticks and buttons.

Fortunately, VR researchers have found that another pair of PC gaming accessories fill the required role nicely: the $100 Razer Hydra motion controller and the $250 Microsoft Kinect motion and voice sensor. Both devices enable users to interact seamlessly with VR worlds without breaking the bank.

“Lowering the costs of each required hardware component makes VR systems affordable, and thus much more appealing for the mass market,” says Mossel, who calls both the Hydra and the Kinect big successes in the VR realm.

Bossa Studios
Surgeon Simulator 2013 in action.

Surgeon Simulator 2013, pictured above, offers a game-focused sense of the possibilities, thanks to its Oculus Rift and Razer Hydra support. Oculus VR’s Iribe mentioned virtual surgery training for medical students as a possible use for the Oculus Rift down the line, so Surgeon Simulator 2013 may be a simplified glimpse into the future—not that today’s simple, VR-friendly gaming tools could be used for critical applications, as both Iribe and Mossel stressed.

“Though the Kinect offers full-body motion tracking, it lacks accuracy compared to a multicamera based tracking system,” Mossel says. “The projects I mentioned all require very precise position and orientation tracking, so the Kinect would not be enough. More-affordable and also easy-to-use and -maintain solutions need to be developed.”

But the hardware on hand today is all the average person needs for a perfectly suitable VR jaunt, and their low-cost implementations provide a possible roadmap for more-nuanced tools down the line.

Playing Minecraft on the Oculus Rift and Virtuix Omni treadmill. 

What’s more, new hardware with natural, alternative interfaces seems to be springing up every other day. when paired with the Rift, the Kickstarter-backed $400 Virtuix Omni treadmill gets you halfway to a true VR suite, as demonstrated in the Minecraft-sporting video above. Imagine combining those items with Thalmic Labs’ MYO armband, which supposedly is sensitive enough to pick up subtle finger movements. It’s also easy to see something like the $80 Leap Motion controller fitting into the consumer VR mix.

Peering into the future

As de la Peña says, the virtual stars seem to be aligning, but the Oculus Rift—or something like it—is the celestial body at the center of this potential VR universe. Inexpensive, easy-to-use, easy-to-repair virtual-reality hardware will have far more mainstream appeal than anything available today, especially if killer apps show up to accompany it.

In that sense, Oculus VR’s decision to roll with a game-focused vision makes total sense. People love games, and the appeal of VR-enabled games has already helped ship more than 17,000 Oculus Rift developer kits. Thousands more are still on preorder, and hordes of big-name developers have pledged allegiance to the VR flag. Games get the Rift in the door.

Or rather, it could do so, someday. The consumer version of the Oculus Rift has yet to ship, as the company integrates higher-resolution 1080p displays and support for nifty natural interfaces, rather than keyboards and gamepads alone.

From games to game-changing applications

Head-mounted displays are unlikely to become household items anytime soon. The Holodeck is still nothing more than a Star Trek fantasy. Consumer VR’s day in the sun has yet to come—but the first tentative rays of hope are starting to peek over the distant horizon. And if—when?— that day comes, the benefits could be downright momentous.

Just ask Mossel: “It’s great to see patients with the Virtual Prosthesis Trainer, who have been really thankful to see technologies like this emerge to simplify their lives,” she says.

Someday soon, almost everyone could have access to potentially life-altering tools like the Virtual Prosthesis Trainer. When that happens, it’ll be thanks to gaming peripherals like Microsoft’s Kinect, Razer’s Hydra, and perhaps most importantly, the Oculus Rift.

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