A Jaunt to the Holodeck: Oculus Rift and Virtual Reality

I was standing in the ruins of a wrecked, futuristic wasteland, gun held in front of me, ready to shoot. Suddenly, something triggered a reaction. Maybe the warrior instinct of a 12-yr-old boy. I turned suddenly. The landscape paused, glitched, pixelated itself back into form. Too late: my opponent, who until then had been my best friend, shot me. I couldn’t move quickly enough, literally. The world kept freezing up, my body stuck frozen, like Borges’ Jaromir Hladik. The bullet skip-started through the air toward me. Game over.

That was virtual reality in the early 1990s. The excitement over getting to play a game where we were immersed in a world was matched only by the disappointment of the actual experience. And the idea of VR being a disappointing gimmick has stuck in the mainstream imagination. In other words, in the same way some people probably still think the Hubble was an expensive boondoggle

Virtual Reality Perception

That’s the trouble with perception – it can distort the truth. And perception was the problem with virtual reality. People using it couldn’t see clearly, so they looked past it. But that isn’t the case anymore. Virtual Reality has improved to the point where it is realistic to think it will have a major impact on the way we live, play, and communicate. It will be able to sync up with our smartphones and other mobile devices. It will provide an immersive communication experience.

More than games: Oculus Rift

VR tech has been very much in the news lately, thanks to the sudden and explosive success of Oculus Rift.  There had been buzz building through March about the new and improved Rift.  Rift is a virtual -reality system that promised to revolutionize gaming. Then, at the end of the month, Facebook announced that they had bought Oculus Rift for around $2 billion dollars.

This was a seismic shift. Though it may seem that Facebook can pull that kind of scratch out of break-room couch cushions, it is a significant investment in a technology whose history has been, at best, pretty spotty. And, Farmville and its ilk aside, Facebook has never shown much interest in gaming. So what was Zuckerberg thinking?

Well, for one thing, Oculus Rift seems poised to be the major player in immersive gaming technology, so it is a good investment. Gamers will love to be able to strap on a headset and really play, to turn and look up and down, to be surrounded by the game. This will most likely be  a huge money maker for the company. But there is more to it than gaming.

$6.8 million dollars in funding

First off, there is entertainment – a whole new world of entertainment. This was made very clear by the recent announcement of Jaunt, a San Francisco-based company, that they had received $6.8 million dollars in funding to work on an immersive cinematic experience for virtual reality headsets. This news dovetailed on the word that a new David Attenborough documentary on birds was being shot for the Oculus Rift.

Think about that: imagine strapping on a Rift headseat and putting on Conquest of the Skies. Suddenly, you are in the sky, and you control what you see. You are looking ahead at the lead bird, or you turn to see the mountains to your right or the sunset to your left (I’m assuming we’re flying north- it’s spring!). You’re in control, and part of a world you previously couldn’t imagine.

Jaunt will be at the forefront of this as well, helping to put us into movies and documentaries, where we can be in the middle of the action. Want to see what is happening to the side? Turn that way. Look behind you – there are archers lining up to shoot, and you can follow the arrows through the air (I’m assuming you’re watching a movie about medieval battles- it’s spring!). In some ways, you become the director.

Communication

That still doesn’t explain what Mark Zuckerberg was thinking; at least not entirely. He sees Virtual Reality and an immersive visual experience as a continuation of smartphones and wearable technology. What this can do is allow you to fully experience something that your friend is seeing. We used to have slideshows for vacations, then videos, Facebook posts, texts sent back and forth (“I’m at the Grand Canyon!!!! It’s huge lol”). But if the technology advances to the point where you can film yourself using cameras like the Oculus Rift provides, your friends can be at the Grand Canyon as well, and not limited to that at which you point your lens. They can be all around.

Or imagine an advancement in Google Glass technology. Put one of these on your child during his soccer game, and his grandmother can be on the field with him, looking all around, getting the full feel for the game. This is the next step in sharing your life with friends and family, to the point where calling it “virtual reality” is a bit of a misnomer: it is reality rendered for your convenience.

Holodecks and history

In the classic Simpsons’ episode “Marge vs. the Monorail,” Springfield comes into a bunch of money, and Lisa suggests they use it for education. She imagines putting on a VR headset, and standing in a battle with Ghengis Khan. He’s looking at the battle (“Hmm…excellent”) and then looks over at her, saying, “Hello Lisa! I’m Ghengis Khan. You’ll go where I go, defile what I defile, eat who I eat!” It’s a great gag, and at the time seemed even funnier for the ridiculous premise. We’d never have technology that can do that.

Clearly, that isn’t the case anymore. We will be able to do that for children, even if it isn’t as personalized (though there is no reason why it can’t be). History lessons can be more vivid and memorable; in science, you can put kids inside an atom or a human body and let them explore. It can change the way we learn and interact with our education forever.

Less high-minded, but no less cool, is the ability to create, essentially, a holodeck, like from Star Trek. , This can be used to create a full gaming experience (though we’re a little away from that being readily available). It can potentially be used to let you go anywhere, provided it has been programmed in. Once the technology scales to the point where it makes sense to invest in software, there is no reason why someone can’t combine that with gaming tech to make a fully interactive Old West town, or put you in a classic building to explore, or let you go on the deck of the Serenity.

Where is Virtual Reality Headed?

Virtual Reality is poised to make a huge leap forward, and will affect our communication technology, our education, the way we use social media, and the way we see the world. It’s tempting to fall back on a cliche and say that the sky is the limit, but that wouldn’t be true. We’ll get even further than the sky, blasting into space, where you can tumble through in a Bullock-like manner, only safe, peering at the vastness, an immensity matched only by the imagination and ingenuity of the people who made it possible.

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