My first-hand experience with cutting edge virtual reality
Virtual reality (VR), the concept of a computer-generated, fully immersive simulation, has been a trope of science fiction and a dogged pursuit of computer science for decades. Since the as early as the 1960s, three dimensional simulators of various sorts have been designed and steadily improved upon, while at the same time pop culture and Hollywood cinema have imaged a future in which people “plug in” to virtual worlds indistinguishable from our own. For the most part, however, the pursuit of VR has remained more fantasy than reality, with commercial attempts like the Nintendo Virtual Boy offering only crude, head-splitting monochromatic experiences.
Oculus VR, which was purchased by Facebook last year for 2 billion dollars, are poised to cross the threshold into a commercially viable VR headset that achieves a genuinely convincing simulation, and already their Oculus Rift product is being put to astounding and creative uses. The lightweight headset outputs to two screens (one for each eye) subtly offset in order to create a three dimension image to the viewer. Combined with a high performance PC and a set of stereo headphones and you have everything you need to create a fully immersive experience.
Through a combination of gyroscopic sensors and camera tracking, the system smoothly tracks head movement, adjusting the image you see as the viewer tilts and pans their head around all three axis. The performance will depend on the speed and processing power of the computer driving the Rift, but in my experience the effect was incredibly smooth, with lag only noticeable if one shook their head back and forth rapidly. At 1080p resolution, there was some noticeable pixilation to the image, however the next model is due to feature 2K resolution, which should be high enough to make the picture almost indistinguishable from photo realism.
Beyond its impressive technical specs and performance, what really sets the Oculus Rift apart from all previous attempts at personal VR is the range of creative applications which have already been developed for it. In my brief experience with the device, I tested out a surreal simulated world known as “The Chair”, which morphed and changed each time you looked in a particular direction, resulting in a new landscape constantly being formed just outside your field of view.
Next, I tried music visualization software which created a variety of immersive son et lumière synchronized to whatever music I played. After that, I watched a unique nature documentary about the high arctic, filmed entirely with cameras attached to boats and aircraft designed specifically to film for the Oculus. The result was a film in which you are the center and can look in any direction at any time.
Finally, I played Sci-Fi racing game called Radial-G in which I piloted a jet hovercraft along a track shaped like a long, spiraling pipe. Moving at high speeds, rapidly turning your head in each direction to view the next turn coming up, this game is definitely not recommended for anyone who is prone to motion sickness, as after a few minutes of play I was left sweating and thoroughly nauseous, but thrilled! Rollercoaster fans will be amazed to find that the visual stimulus which the Oculus supplies is more than enough to create real life sensation of falling. The illusion is remarkably vivid.
While still needing slight improvements, particularly in the field of graphics resolution, the Oculus Rift is a massive step forward in virtual reality, the first such consumer product that genuinely lives up to the promise of science fiction in its capacity to create convincing and exciting simulations. I predict that the near future will see major advancements in this technology, as well and as yet unimaginable applications for the technology. What possibilities will be unlocked, one wonders, when these devices are networked together, and we can interact with other Oculus users online in shared virtual landscapes?
Sean Kirby is a Client Support Specialist at Triella, a technology consulting company specializing in providing technology assessments, consulting, maintenance services and CIO-related services to small and medium sized firms. Sean can be reached at 647.426.1004.