Virtual Reality and the Oculus Rift

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One of the long-awaited dreams of gamers seems to be finally coming to pass. Virtual reality has been, over the past few decades, alternately the hottest new thing and a laughingstock. The technology has now improved to the point that it seems like it will finally be able to fulfill its promise of immersing gamers in realistic imaginary worlds. Leading the charge is the Oculus Rift.

The first headset VR system was created in the ’60s, but the unit was so heavy that it needed to be attached to supporting structures while the user was strapped in. From these primitive beginnings, VR advanced in step with general improvements in computing technology until several VR systems hit the consumer marketplace in the 1990s. Unfortunately, these products, including the Sega VR and the Nintendo Virtual Boy, were difficult to use and often caused headaches, so they didn’t achieve the success that was hoped for. The field then languished until engineer Palmer Luckey began working on the Oculus Rift, producing his first prototype in 2012.

Through his company, Oculus VR, Luckey began a Kickstarter campaign to further develop the Rift. The initial model used 1280×800 resolution and a head-tracking system with a 250 hertz refresh rate. Having tried this model myself, it was still very impressive.  As I hurled through space or zoomed across a roller coaster, my natural fear of heights transformed into a virtual fear of heights.  I literally fell on the floor, and it was awesome.

Over the years, the attributes of the system have improved particularly after Facebook bought the company in June 2014. The latest version of the Oculus Rift boasts 2160 x 1200 display resolution and a positional tracking system with a 1,000 hertz polling frequency. There have been steady decreases in the weight of the unit, which is important when we consider that users will have to wear it whenever they want to use the system.

By showing slightly offset images to each eye, the Rift tricks the user’s brain into believing that he is witnessing a three-dimensional environment. The head-tracking features allow the hardware to detect where the user is looking and adjust what’s shown almost instantly. The Oculus Touch is the most recent control scheme for the Rift. Held in the user’s hand, the Touch has buttons and an analog stick, but the coolest thing about it is that it tracks hand motions, so a player can punch, wave to a friend, pick up objects and perform other movements in real life that will be translated into the game world. Oculus Rift will be released during the first quarter of 2016 and will plug into PCs with somewhat-high system requirements.

While the Rift is the device that everyone is focused upon, there are other products in the works at different firms. Sony’s Project Morpheus, recently renamed PlayStation VR, will be an accessory for the PlayStation 4 game console that will allow one person to view the action through a headset while others use a standard television display to play at the same time. Microsoft is backing its HoloLens system with a special version of Windows designed to take advantage of its capabilities. The HoloLens will have the ability to combine holographic elements with the wearer’s normal view of the world. Both of these solutions are expected to be released in 2016, so they will compete heavily against the Oculus Rift. There are plenty of other companies that are also entering this space, like Starbreeze Studios and HTC.

Though gaming will push VR to the masses, we can expect other industries to benefit from it. Students could attend virtual lectures, businesses could arrange meetings between workers on different continents, and marketing firms will have a new medium through which to highlight their products. Those in architecture, interior design and home security would be able to plan out the structure and style of a building without pencil and paper. In addition, they would be able to show potential clients the product without having even started on their project. There are already uses for virtual reality in healthcare, such as the treatment of PTSD and social anxiety.

We’re about to see a revolution in the gaming world, and it will begin with the Oculus Rift. The experience of using it has been reported as engaging and realistic, and we can only expect it to get better as updated hardware comes to the fore in coming years. As the latest advances propagate among gamers and then society at large, we may see VR headsets become as ubiquitous as cell phones.