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

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Nonny de la Peña is a journalist, but she doesn’t report tragedies. She helps you experience them. She mixes virtual reality with real-world audio clips to drop you into the role of an observer as chaos unfolds in a food bank line in Los Angeles, or into the virtual shoes of a detainee bound for Gitmo. More than mere words, her works are a punch in the gut.

The virtual helps the real

Annette Mossel is a Ph.D. candidate and lecturer at the Interactive Media Systems Group at Vienna University of Technology, but her interest in virtual worlds delivers tangible benefits. One IMSG project trains amputees to use their new muscle-sensing myoelectric prostheses—months before the complex device is actually manufactured. More than mere theory, her VR work helps people regain control of their physical capabilities much faster than was previously possible.

There’s no doubt about it: Virtual reality has the potential to profoundly alter our lives. So far, though, its reach has rarely extended beyond well-funded institutes and government agencies.

That could soon change, however—thanks in large measure to PC gaming accessories like the Oculus Rift, a gaming-focused VR headset “designed for immersive games” but capable of so, so much more. Mere toys? Ha. These devices could be the keys that unlock the future.

An eye-opening experience

The author exploring the Oculus Rift's virtual movie theater at E3.

My eyes were opened to the potential of the Oculus Rift at this year’s E3 gaming convention, where I tried the VR headset for the first time. While the game-related portion of the demo was impressive, the VR Cinema 3D trial truly blew my mind.

VR Cinema 3D, an Oculus-compatible app created by Joo-Hyung Ahn using the popular Unity game engine, dropped me into a movie theater, complete with rows of seats and a flickering projector behind me. After a moment, a theatrical trailer for The Hangover Part III sprang to life on the big screen.

Sure, it sounds simple, and it was. But the sense of just plain being there was palpable: I felt as though I were truly sitting in a cinema seat, giggling at Zach Galifianakis. The Oculus Rift’s wide field of view completely blocked out the real world and immersed me in the digital, while the responsive sensor package built into the Rift tracked my head movements flawlessly. I was in that theater. The only thing missing was the popcorn.

Oculus VR
The VRCinema3D app in action.

“With this technology,” says Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus VR, “the field of view (FOV) is so wide that a switch in your brain flips, and within a few seconds your brain feels like that is reality. It feels that what it’s looking at is actually where you are. If you have a small FOV, like many of the previous devices out there, your brain knows it’s looking at a screen.”

Visions of a virtual Jurassic Park danced through my head. That 3-minute demo convinced me that the Rift’s potential extends far beyond games—and apparently, I was late to the realization.

Worlds of possibilities

Something similar to the Undercurrent exploration game could easily be used as a "virtual field trip" tool.

“In the first 30 days on Kickstarter, we started getting almost inundated with emails from people in [nongaming] markets,” says Iribe. “A lot of them came from medical fields, the military, architecture, automobile design, even fitness. There were just so many people reaching out to us.”

With a little imagination, it’s easy to envision scads of nongaming uses for an affordable VR device like the Oculus Rift.

Fenix Fire
The Oculus Rift demo's Tuscan villa.

An early tech demo for the Rift, dubbed “Tuscany,” let users explore a virtual villa in the Italian countryside. Imagine the technology being used to explore foreign locales or historical events as part of an educational curriculum, or a Total Recall–esque tourism service. Something like Undercurrent could be converted to allow students to explore the Titanic shipwreck. Already, Titans of Space offers a jaunt through a built-to-scale solar system.

“You can immerse [yourself] in places which are virtual or even real, but remote,” says Mossel. “Imagine watching through a robot’s eyes that is exploring a cave, or another environment that is too dangerous for humans to go. Turning your head…could also trigger the robot to turn its head.”

But the Oculus Rift could be used for more than simple exploration.

Interactive Media Systems Group/Vienna University of Technology
Mossel's IMSG uses VR headsets with armband-style sensors to help amputees become accustomed to their prosthetics—before the prosthetics are attached. (Images show a nonamputee for reference.)

Tours of exotic locations could entice would-be exercisers to use treadmills and stationary bikes. Teens could learn to drive in virtual cars before hitting the real road. VR replicas of the entire Library of Congress— complete with a full selection of readable books—could replace e-readers. Much of Mossel’s IMSG work, such as the aforementioned prosthesis training and Playmancer, focuses on physical therapy and rehabilitation. Others are using VR for mental therapy, helping veterans to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder. Immersive journalism can virtually embed us at important events, shattering the fishbowl-gazing vibe of watching the news on the flatscreen.

Nonny de la PeÑa
Nonny de la Peña's "Hunger in Los Angeles" puts you in the role of an observer at a food bank line marred by tragedy. It re-creates an actual event and uses audio captured at the scene. 

Both Iribe and Mossel are excited about potential social VR applications. Mossel notes that speedier Internet technology, together with improvements to CPU and GPU processing power, “make it possible to build shared collaborative VR systems where users can interact remotely in real-time.”

Iribe takes a more personal tack. “What happens when you look not just a video game bot or monster in the eyes, but when you’re in a social multiplayer experience when you look your friend in the eye in this virtual environment?” he ponders. “You’ll really feel connected to them because you’re looking them in the eyes, and your mouth is moving to your lips using the audio in the game. That’s going to spark a lot of emotion that has never been sparked before.”

Second Life never sounded so potentially awesome.

“Can you imagine the educational possibilities?” asks de la Peña, who feels that VR is on the verge of mainstream adoption. “They’re limitless, just limitless. But they’ve taken a few things to come together.”

Indeed they have—and a lot of those things were designed first and foremost for PC gaming.

Crossing the rift

Design engineers use Canon's "Mixed Reality" augmented VR headset, which costs $125,000 up front, with additional annual maintenance charges of $25,000—not exactly consumer-friendly pricing.

Virtual reality is nothing new, of course.

Specialized VR tools have been around for a while now, training soldiers to shoot, pilots to fly, and disabled people to conquer their handicaps. But up until now, the high cost of virtual reality setups has severely limited their adoption. The jankiest VR headsets out there cost north of $1000; many rigs run in the tens or (gulp!) hundreds of thousands.

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