(D)Rifting back to reality

Nov-Dec 2014 - Holiday Issue

Virtual reality, or VR, has been a popular cultural term since the 1980s when films like TRON were made before even celebrities had personal computers. Virtual reality is to the video game as film was to the novel. TRON featured computer designers being digitized into another dimension inside of a computer.

The above video is a small taste of what event attendees experienced in the second video below.

VR puts a screen over the user’s eyes to simulate a full 3D environment, complete with natural head tracking as opposed to a button the user presses to move the camera like in a video game. When a certain level of technical specifications is met, a unique feeling known as “presence” is achieved.

A user truly forgetting they are playing an experience on a computer and actually feels as if they are somewhere else is experiencing presence. Current demos and testimonials suggest this is a fleeting experience, but Oculus hopes that by the time they launch the Rift publicly, presence will be routinely attainable, a “must have” for entertainment fans across the world.

Although VR failed decades ago because of being incredibly heavy, low quality and expensive, modern day VR headsets are only about $300 (update June 2016 - Oculus founder Palmer Luckey originally ballparked the retail price, but we have since learned $600-800 is more accurate for first generation VR.) and require nothing more than a desktop PC or smartphone to run. Facebook just purchased the new VR company, Oculus, for $2 billion and Mark Zuckerberg envisions VR becoming a one billion person market within 10 years. The current largest video game market is only about 100 million and thus remains rather niche compared to fans of film and books.

Streets of gold
The next generation will look back at today’s media consumption habits and chuckle that the most luxurious theater still contained just a 2D box we stared at for hours. VR delivers full immersion interactivity (presence). When you suddenly have a three dimensional media sphere 360 degrees all around you, possibilities become infinite.

Business will become even more global. Rather than flying to meet the VIP for an exciting deal or drive to Starbucks, you will talk “face to face” in a New York skyscraper overlooking Central Park.

Rather than choosing between a frustrating online discussion college class and scheduling time to commute to the brick-and-mortar school, future students could feel as if they are getting their education in the best institutions in the world, surrounded by their teacher and peers. Actually being at home in their bathrobes.

People wanting to take a dream vacation without taking the time off or buying plane tickets can go anywhere and see anything with the push of a button. Driving a high end yacht or sports car will be possible, not once in a lifetime, but once a day if you so choose. Some of the poorest people in the world will live like kings, see the world and experience a life of super luxury.

Mobile alternatives
Oculus’ five-year goal is to release a single VR product that can be taken on the go as well as plugged into a powerful PC at home. For now, the big experiences will be on the Oculus Rift, while more casual players might prefer mobile alternatives such as Samsung’s Gear VR and Google Cardboard.

While the Oculus Rift has the benefit of limitless PC processing power to deliver presence and unbeatable experiences, standing and walking applications will be very challenging since users are still tethered to a PC base station via thick cabling. Having something that works with your phone on the go nets exciting social and augmented reality applications at the cost of cutting edge performance and battery life which sets a limit on how long you can play outside.

CRR's "Future of Entertainment" event.

A new tomorrow
VR will be making the news over the next two years as we get closer to public release. As a reader of tech product reviews, I have never seen greater anticipation for a product, especially one whose developer kit delivers on its promises of a truly next-generation and game changing experience.


Perry Piper lives in Longview and works as CRR’s production manager/photographer and technical consultant. He enjoys learning about emerging and evolving technologies, including his Segway personal transporter on which he can be seen gliding around town. Be sure to wave!