Oculus Rift, along with other recent projects, has made virtual reality a plausible technology.
As is the case with most of the technologies that prosper, virtual reality appeals to a long-standing human need. Immersion in other worlds has been a constant objective, so much so that one of the essential functions even in the case of literature consists of evading the present and moving into a scenario that cannot be achieved by other means at that time. Going back even further, to oral narration, we find that the seed of escapism is still there. What this all means is that virtual reality is not just technological whimsy, or a passing fad.
Once we’re clear that it responds to an existing need, which must be covered to the right degree, we can now talk about more practical questions. And the thing is that virtual reality, understood as the immersion of the senses (for now vision and hearing) in a world built using software, is not a new phenomenon. Although the development of this technology has been intermittent, the first experiments go back several decades. We can even find virtual simulations in the first half of the 20th century.
In any case, the term ‘virtual reality’ was coined by the multitalented computer scientist Jaron Lanier, who also founded the company VPL Research in 1985, in order to design helmets that put the wearer into another world. After several years, the company went bankrupt. Lanier was ahead of his time, but sometimes that’s a disadvantage, when the conditions aren’t right for the technology to prosper.
The world is ready for virtual reality
The reason that led to the bankruptcy of VPL Research is the same one that has contributed to the success of projects like Oculus Rift, the most highly-developed project to date. It all comes down to price. In the 80s, a virtual immersion helmet cost close to $100,000, but Oculus VR has sent out units of its glasses to developers for $300.
It goes without saying that there are other conditions that put Oculus Rift in a position for a commercial launch that the VPL Research product never enjoyed. The new device will have a resolution of more than 1920×1080 pixels for each eye when it is released at the end of this year or the beginning of the next. This is a significant improvement over what was possible 30 years ago.
Image quality is a requirement to make the experience as enriching as possible, but also for people to be able to handle it. The users of the early virtual reality systems complained of nausea. Oculus Rift has received the same complaint, but to a lesser degree, and the company says that the problem is practically corrected in the latest version of its device.
However, the real opportunity for virtual reality lies in the dropping costs of the hardware, which makes it possible to create powerful devices and sell them at affordable prices, suitable for mass consumption. Proof of this lies in the appearance of other projects like vrAse, which through Kickstarter announced its intention to sell its product for approximately €100, and Sony is also working on a device to complement its PS4.
Virtual reality is primarily aimed at video games, as is clearly demonstrated by the first prototypes. The total immersion in the virtual worlds, to the extent that you can see what is at your feet if you look down, enriches the gaming experience immensely. But the technology could also be used for other purposes, such as passive entertainment (watching a movie), video conferences, virtual tours of museums, hotels and cities, and even to facilitate online shopping.
Money won’t be a problem. Remember that Oculus VR was recently acquired by Facebook, which puts an end to its possible problems of liquidity. But the company probably wasn’t suffering from that problem; its Kickstarter campaign was joined by venture capital investments for a total of $91 million.
Images: Sergey Galyonkin and Oculus VR