Why Oculus Rift And Virtual Reality Could Be Huge And Not Just For GamersApril 14, 2014
by Antony Leather
Over two decades ago, I was in a theme park near London and in a small room tucked out of the way and with a far smaller queue than any of the vomit-inducing rides outside, sat two large seats with computers built into them. Something like ‘Virtual Reality Gaming’ was printed on the side and in one seat sat a boy about my age wearing a huge helmet. I could tell it was extremely heavy from the way his head was bobbing around but one this was sure – the guy was transfixed by what he was seeing inside the helmet.
When I found out the game he was playing was some kind of virtual reality (VR) flight sim, I immediately wanted a go. My parents, thankfully, stumped up the rather hefty fee (it was external company exhibiting so not only had we paid through the nose to get into the theme park, I probably seemed pretty ungrateful to now be asking for money to play on a computer game, which I could quite easily do at home on my Nintendo ). I donned the ridiculously heavy helmet (I was only about 7 at the time to make things worse) and the next 15 minutes were probably one of the defining technological experiences of my life.
I was looking around the cockpit of a WWI fighter plane and attacking a German Zeppelin. However, the realism provided by the VR helmet panning the view as I moved my head around was astounding. In fact I didn’t even press the trigger for the machine guns for several minutes I was so in awe.
Above you can see the kind of device I’m talking about, and just how huge the headsets were. Sadly, while they had promise, they were confined to arcades and slowly died out.
My initial thoughts of ‘this is going to be huge when people can buy it’ were met with some dismay as the months and years passed and VR faded into memory. How could something that groundbreaking and awe inspiring – something that I now believe could have had a bigger impact than motion sensor control on consoles, just die out? After all, it was the epitome of the most important reasons why the video game industry is now worth over $60 billion – immersion and escapism.
There are several reasons and actually, it’s only really failed as a consumer gaming product – it’s widely used to design automotive products and even NASA uses it to train astronauts by mocking up virtual spacecraft . For the consumer, though, it was expensive and cumbersome. Smaller sets that were made available for consoles at the time often lacked the ability to track your movements, which had a massive impact on the immersion factor, plus there was often a large amount of lag that could bring about motion sickness or just a generally poor experience. Graphics too were primitive compared to today’s standards and while computer technology at the time fine for 18in TV screens, it simply wasn’t up to the task of rendering VR worlds.
Then it all came back with a bang with Oculus Rift – the Kickstarter-funded startup that was making waves before Facebook’s recent purchase. The mere fact that the social media giant paid a staggering $2 billion for Oculus Rift is testament that it also sees the kind of potential that initial startups several decades ago new about but couldn’t act upon due to limited technology at the time.
With games, both console and PC gamers have lacked much improvement in realism and immersion. Nintendo’s Wii broke into new ground with its motion sensor technology – something that Sony and Microsoft MSFT -0.23% have replicated, but apart from this, gamers have relied solely on better graphics and larger screens to be more immersed in their games. It’s one reason why PC gaming is still going strong – the graphics on offer here is on average much better than that found on the latest consoles and Oculus itself has stated the device will find a home first one the PC, as well as smartphones.
There’s a good reason for this too – the PC has been capable of dealing with ultra high 4K resolutions for some time, although demanding games have until now needed two high-end graphics cards to be able to render all these extra pixels smoothly. Now, though, there are two single graphics cards that can dish out 4K gaming and with plenty of frame rates to spare. AMD’s Radeon R9 295X2 is certainly hugely expensive and Nvidia's NVDA +0.69% forthcoming dual-GPU Titan Z graphics card is likely to be just as wallet-bashing, but with 4K monitors now retailing for less than $1,000, it sets the tone for Nvidia and AMD to focus their efforts on producing cheaper 4K-capable graphics cards, providing a fantastic base for a new area of high resolution VR and a springboard for Oculus Rift to bounce into the history books.
For gamers, this represents the ultimate immersive experience, short of being on the holodeck of the USS Enterprise in the world of Star Trek. It’s something nearly every game genre could benefit from and it could give gaming the biggest least forward since it tapped into the Internet to allow multiplayer gaming.
The advantages of VR don’t stop with gaming though. I’ve already mentioned that companies use it to design products – Oculus Rift could mean that everyone from freelance product designers to owners of 3D Printers could use it to their advantage. There could also be virtual tours of famous buildings or even cities – all recorded using Google Streetview-like technology that could make you feel as if you were really there.
Are you tired of buying products – especially clothing, online only find they look different from the flat images you’ve seen? VR could reinvent the online shopping experience by providing a high resolution 3D model of the item that’s even better than the 360 degree rotating images many etailers offer at the moment, to give you a near in-store experience
TV services could be revolutionized too – imagine being on-board a NASCAR or Formula 1 car during a race or able to pan your view around Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu or Miami Dolphins Sun Life Stadium during a football game. The technology has huge potential to impact on every form of entertainment in the home and I suspect that the Rift won’t be the only VR device competing for your head in a few years time. In short though, this time round VR looks set to be a hit and given their strong position, it’s c.