Eyes on with the Oculus Rift

People of the 1950s envisioned their dreams of the future through novels and science-fiction movies. Many of those films and books turned out to be quite prophetic and today, those dreams are part of mundane reality (mundane because we’re well used to it and the aliens never turned up in their flying saucers to bring a little excitement).

Only Harry Potter gets a flying car for now

Robots may not be our servants in the home yet, but they line factory floors the world over building myriad products with incredible precision and speed. The car may not fly yet, but you can customise your order so that potentially no two that come off that robot driven production line need ever be identical.

In medicine, they can see right into your brain and look at your thoughts and vital functions as they happen without needing to knock you out or cut into you.

At home, we have smart-devices, phones, televisions, watches even that try and anticipate our next move, film and destination and help us along the way.

It’s all so easy to take for granted. I’ve written a few times about how smartphones have become a bit boring. Given what these amazing devices are capable of, I don’t half sound like an ungrateful goit. But what I’m basically saying is that there hasn’t been a new device for a long time that’s truly excited me and shown the next ‘future’ - something to spark the dreaming again.

Today is a special day. Today is the day all that changed when I got introduced to the Oculus Rift Development Kit 2.

It's not pretty. You won't look pretty. But this can take you places...

The Oculus Rift (OR) is a virtual reality (VR) headset. Now a few people around my age might just be reaching for the next webpage, but please bear with me. Virtual Reality is not a new idea. It did pop up in the 80s, but really, they were still in the process of dreaming and the dream didn’t happen. This is a VR headset done right.

The company initially appeared on Kickstarter back in 2012 with a prototype and big promises. They’ve since been bought up by FaceBook, who are making even bigger promises and are backing those up with even BIGGER wads of cash.

Development Kit 2 is the latest ‘Beta’ version of the product, which can be bought today for about $300 and one had just landed on a colleague’s desk in the office. Calendar cleared, it was time to don the headset, load up some demos and see what it could do.

The headset itself is of a very functional design. The black box housing the high-definition screen and lenses for each of your eyes is nice and light and the head-brace holds the unit in place comfortably.

All the clever hardware seems to be based on smartphone tech, which keeps the cost down

Where the OR comes into contact with your face, there is a thick foam padding that starts off comfortable, but I must confess, it did get rather hot in there after less than 10mins. I hope the commercial version comes with something a bit more breathable.

The first demo is up. I’m immediately transported from an IT office in a University to a beautiful house on top of a hill in Tuscany. The garden is full of lovely flowers, a water-feature and butterflies caught in the breeze. Looking around my mind is fooled. I’m really there and the sounds of the Italian countryside are relaxing me and drawing me further in. Walking over to the wall at the edge of the garden, I peer over to find I’m at the top of a cliff, with waves striking a beach far far below. The effect of the altitude hits me and I instinctively step back, my brain actually wanting to protect me from the dangers of a cliff edge!

The 3D effect, the instant reaction to my head turning as I look around and the audio have succeeded in immersing me in this digital world. I want to stay. It’s a beautiful house and no neighbours for miles.

We flick over to something very different. I’m now on a rollercoaster. Loud house music pumping and a crowd at either side, dancing and cheering as we wait to set off.

I notice that I can see the individual pixels of the OR’s screen. The images aren’t blurry, but whilst HD resolution is great for your home TV when you’re sitting 12ft or more away, I hope that higher resolutions will be possible on the consumer versions, as it really will look spectacular then! At least the girl sitting next to me will.

As the roller coaster sets off, I’m immediately catapulted into twists, turns, loops and vertical drops. It’s great fun, but i’m now fighting with my brain. It’s hard to stand up and I lean hard, my body fooled into compensating for inertia that isn’t actually there. The guy in the video had an even harder time! After the ride, I cheekily opt to go round again, but after a few minutes I take the headset off, identifying another problem. 

My senses are now in conflict

I’m seasick. Standing in an office, telling my brain that I’m flying round a roller coaster has fooled some bits of my body, but not others and my senses are now in conflict. I had to stop and it was more than an hour before the effects of the ride went away.

The Oculus Rift is not ready for market. It’s a work in progress, but it’s the most exciting gadget I’ve got my hands on in a long time. Like Microsoft’s Kinect, the most obvious application is gaming, but there will be innovations around its use every bit as exciting as the innovations that are going into its construction. Even just the change of scene provided by the Tuscan house suggests that peaceful environments just to wander around in are a good application.

Research, education, medicine, I think we’ll be seeing these things everywhere. It’s the future and inside virtual reality, the future can look however we want it to look.

What do you think? Is the Oculus Rift going to make a big impact, or is it another jumped up gimmick for the gamers?


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Photo Credits:

Harry Potter and the Flying Car

Anna Bashmakova and Oculus Rift