Oculus Rift can do a lot better than Birdly

Frivolous applications for Oculus Rift distract from the incredible potential of virtual reality technology. But innovations for gamers may help revolutionise many other industries.

Once relegated the realms of gaming geeks and science fiction novels, virtual reality is now on the cusp of gaining mainstream acceptance, thanks to Oculus VR.

The newfound exuberance has a lot to do with Facebook putting $2 billion on the table for the company but it’s heartening to see that Oculus is aspiring to be more than just a flash-in-the-pan tech outfit.

It has ambitions and Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg’s cash just might jumpstart something beautiful. Although, Birdly -- a new flight simulator that aims to recreate the experience of flying like a bird, using the Oculus Rift -- is probably not what Oculus chief executive Brendan Iribe has in mind.

Earlier this week, Iribe declared he was not satisfied with simply building the next Gameboy and reaching a few million customers, but wanted to build the next iPhone and potentially reach billions.

Perhaps it’s going a little far to imagine we’ll all be walking round with screens attached to our faces (even Google Glass, by all accounts a far less obtrusive technology, has been less than warmly embraced by the broader public), yet Iribe’s vision of bringing VR beyond the realms of gaming is more achievable now than ever.

The multi-billion dollar cash injection has given the Irvine, California-based company a significant boost in fast-tracking the development of its low-cost virtual reality headset, the Oculus Rift, to consumers.

With reports the headset will be priced at $US350-400 and be available to purchase in the next year or so, Xbox could be superseded as the plaything of choice come Christmas-time.

But what kind of applications might the technology have beyond the realms of gaming?

Think you’ve seen 3D movies? Think again

One person who shares the vision of pushing the boundaries of VR is Sebastian Marino.

An Academy Award-winning computer graphics software developer with films like Harry Potter, Avatar and Star Wars under his belt, Marino and a team of developers at Wellington-based 8i are looking to bring ‘Holographic Virtual Reality’ to the movies via the Oculus Rift.

“I think when Facebook bought Oculus they really planted a flag and said this is a content delivery medium that expands well beyond the realm of what people consider to be traditional gaming,” Marino says.

‘3D’ viewing technologies have largely been relegated to gimmick status since the early days of cinema but as technology has improved and cinemas search for novel ways to entice customers back through their doors, 3D blockbusters such as The Great Gatsby are leading a revival in suburban theatres.

Nevertheless, Marino thinks the 3D stereoscopic film we pay a premium to see in cinemas today “may go down as a bit of a flash-in-the-pan fad” as “true 3D” technologies like HVR inevitably take over.

“The depth of field in 3D stereoscopic film is based on the camera, but as viewer you’re free to wander your eyes all around the image, so things get out of focus,” Marino explains. “It’s visually inconsistent.”

In contrast, HVR tailors the viewer’s experience of film independently so that they feel as if they’re actually inside it. And this new frontier of cinematic experience can be enjoyed from the comfort of your own home.

Where to from here?

Co-director of University of South Australia’s Wearable Computer Lab Professor Bruce Thomas believes the Oculus Rift has the potential to revolutionise many more industries, including medicine, industrial design and education and training.

For instance, architects could use it to demonstrate the interiors of new houses or buildings, while designers will be able to better visualise their prototypes.

“I can also see it applying to web-based training -- for example, occupational health and safety training where you walk through a virtual world and spot the problems,” says Thomas.

“Not only are you visually seeing it but it’s forcing you to look down or look up to look for hazards. Instead of having a window into a virtual world you’re more immersed in it.”

Thomas says that much like the computer graphics industry more generally, the gaming industry is still likely to lead the development of VR technology and push costs down.

“I think the game industry’s going to drive it in the sense that it’ll supply a large consumer base and then other industries are going to be able to leverage the fact that you have a good product at a low price point,” Thomas says.

So will Oculus actually succeed in making virtual reality, well, a reality?

Thomas says Facebook’s cash significantly improves its chances, and while the transaction has had its detractors (Can Oculus Rift survive Facebook?, April 14), others, such as those in the research community, are championing the news.

At the recent IEEE Virtual Reality Conference, says Thomas, “everybody was saying, ‘VR is finally going to succeed!’. The research community is over the moon about it.”

Thomas himself says he’s optimistic – “but it’s like anything else, nobody can predict the future”.

“MP3 players were around for a long time before the iPod came along, so I guess I see a lot of them being sold because they’re at a great price point,” he says.

“Either way it’s going to be a really good Christmas present.”

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