Everyone has heard the term Virtual-Reality (VR), especially those who are true geeks, and in one way or another we associate it with some type of headset that lets us peer into another world. In science fiction TV Shows or movies like Star Trek, it takes on the conceptual form of a holographic room that generates a computer world, enabling interaction with our surroundings. Even in the Matrix it is seen as an alternate world that we can jack ourselves into, providing all physicalities of sight and smell. No matter how you look at it, Virtual-Reality is a medium that can capture the essence of reality in all it’s complexity. That complexity being the tools of sight, smell, hearing and sensation that we use to draw a creative perspective of the world we live in. No two people perceive the world the same way, so our own experiences are unique to the life we live. Time and time again humanity has been searching to find ways to capture our living moments and replay them with all the same immersive sensations. Unfortunately we’ve never had the proper know-how or technology to make anything practical; VR was either too big and bulky, or too expensive. It was just a really cool dream, but never seemed like it would happen. However, that’s not the end of the story as one company has taken big strides into making Virtual-Reality a future possibility.
A company known as Oculus VR became well known in 2012 at the Electronic Entertainment Expo for having a head mounted display specifically designed and targeted for use with gaming. This headset wasn’t like any other headset used for Virtual-Reality. The unit itself had a 5.6 inch LCD display with dual lenses positioned over each eye that curve the image in such a manner that it created a 90° horizontal and 110° vertical viewing angle. Typically any headset in the past that was meant to provide some form of virtual reality was usually constricted with the viewing angle of 30° or 40°. This would display the image in the shape of a rectangle, as if sitting in front of a widescreen TV. Although with the wide angle lenses used inside Oculus, the image literally is stretched around your field of vision, giving you a sense as if you’re actually surrounded by the world. On top of that, it also has housed sensors to track velocity, orientation, and gravitational forces with very minimal delay, that help with tracking when the user moves their head to look around. It was such an astounding device for anyone who had the chance to see the prototype, and within two months the company launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund further development of the project. As one of the rewards the developers promised to produce a development kit for backers who pledged $300 or more. Amazingly within 4 hours of starting the campaign, Oculus was able to reach the intended goal of $250,000, and in less than 36 hours had accumulated $1 million in funding. Everyone wanted to get their hands on this development kit since the project was following an open-source model. With that being said many developers were easily able to find ways to implement Oculus Rift into some other pre-existing games shortly after the first batch of kits were shipped out and received. Many game development companies such as Epic Games, Valve, and Unity Technologies began announcing support for the Oculus Rift. This meant games and their engines such as Half Life 2 on Source Engine, and Unreal Engine and Unity could be viewed in stereoscopic 3D.
Development began to expand and rapidly progressed within a year. Many third-party developers now supported the Oculus Rift, and were trying to find new applications that went beyond the scope of 3D gaming. Companies such as Ford and NASA have been using the Oculus Rift for demonstration and training purposes. Recently at the game developer conference, Oculus VR announced its second iteration of the Rift. This new version now incorporates a full 1920 x 1080 HD display, and includes positional tracking to adjust the viewpoint based upon whether or not the user moves forwards, backwards, left, or right.
With all this hype around the revolution that Oculus Rift is bringing to the gaming industry, competitors such as Sony Entertainment also announced their big step into the virtual reality scene, by giving a glimpse of their new prototype called Project Morpheus. Project Morpheus is very similar to Oculus Rift. It uses a 1080p display with a 90° field of view (roughly the same as Oculus Rift), however its head tracking does not use any type of sensors. Instead it has bright LEDs, same as the DualShock controller, that are positioned around the perimeter of the head mounted display. It then uses the PlayStation camera to track the orientation 360°. Since Project Morpheus was just announced and not publicly open for beta testing, there is not a lot of reviews or perspective on the user experience. However as a generalization Project Morpheus is for a niche market which is specific to the Playstation 4, unlike Oculus Rift which is open and intended to work on multiple platforms depending on how developers decide to use it. Although that’s not to say that Project Morpheus won’t make its way to PC or other platforms, albeit some hacking, but developers and enthusiasts would be more inclined to use something that has versatility out of the box.
As it stands now there is a lot more we can hope to come from Virtual-Reality, and while writing this article, Oculus VR was actually bought by Facebook. In return it left many developers and enthusiasts confused and lost about the fate of the company. Oculus was considered to be the brainchild of Virtual-Reality, and most of it’s light reflected around gaming. However Facebook sees it as a new medium for education and socialization. Having said that, anything regarding Facebook or social media, one has to ask how that will affect the user experience, let alone society itself? The question to ask yourself is do you see VR as an experience strictly for gaming and entertainment, or do you see it as a tool for connecting people? All I can say is we are only just touching the surface, and even if Facebook now has a very strong influence there is definitely going to be an influx from many companies trying to mold the direction it takes. Microsoft and Valve already have different things going on behind the scenes, so needless to say 2014 is going to be the year we enter a new realm, and that realm is Virtual-Reality.