The technology portrayed in movies such as The Lawnmower Man and Brainstorm has promised to become reality for decades, and it’s almost here. While both movies received the Hollywood treatment, the technology portrayed was based on reality.
A totally immersive environment using helmets or goggles, headphones and a haptic feedback suit were all possible, or nearly possible, in the early 1990s. The problem was that rendering it realistically needed a supercomputer or two networked over high-bandwidth connections.
Is that a supercomputer in your pocket?
Hardware has now caught up with the VR vision and modern desktops and laptops are powerful beyond the dreams of 1990s software developers. Indeed, most of us now carry the equivalent of a 1990s supercomputer in our pocket or handbag with our smartphones.
As a result, immersive virtual reality (VR) is available now for a price; but what really promises to be a game changer is the advent of relatively inexpensive VR headsets such as the Oculus Rift, the developer kit which costs around US$900, and the Samsung smartphone-based Gear VR, which costs around US$300.
Virtual reality is nearly here
The Oculus Rift virtual reailty headset is the most promising device of its type that has been seen in years. People who have tested it say it envelops users in a all-encompassing environment reminiscent of the holodeck from Star Trek Next Generation.
The company, Oculus VR, got started with a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign which enabled it to show prototypes at various consumer electronics shows in 2013. Cashflow issues evaporated when Oculus VR was bought by Facebook and it’s ground-breaking Rift is now due to be released in 2016 with pre-orders being taken from late 2015.
The Rift has two individual OLED displays with a resolution of 1080×1200 per eye, a wide field of view and a 90Hz refresh rate. It promises to be the first consumer-targeted, professional-grade VR headset, however, it will need to be connected via cable to a fairly powerful gaming PC.
The Rift has positional tracking via a separate IR sensor situated on the user’s desk, which enables the Rift to provide spatialised audio through the integrated headphones.
Although tethered by a cable, the spatial awareness allows users to use the Rift sitting, standing or walking around the room. The addition of Oculus Touch controllers, due for release several months after the Rift becomes available, makes the user’s hands part of the position-tracked space, giving the sensation of their hands interacting with the virtual world.
A fully developed ecosystem
Not long after it exhibited early prototypes, Oculus VR made developer kits available for software developers to develop applications and content with the intention that the Rift is just one part of a fully developed ecosystem at launch.
According to the company
, a number of game developers have already ported existing games while others are working on games designed specifically for the Rift. Oculus Cinema is a free application which will enable Rift users to view video from inside the virtual environment.
While Oculus VR has stated its focus is on gaming, some of the other applications the technology can be used for are obvious. Instead of expensive telepresence suites, geographically distributed teams could hold virtual business meetings or even meet clients overseas in a virtual space.
The Rift could be used to train people in a variety of skills using a host of lifelike, role-playing scenarios. Architects are already using VR to walk clients through virtual buildings, and it’s not a big step to provide someone with the virtual experience of their new kitchen or a new car.
Military has been leading the charge
The idea of creating a virtualised space for training is not new. The first flight simulators were developed in World War I and in subsequent years armed forces have been early adopters of VR technology.
Flight simulators have become ever more complex and many modern navies have ship simulators. It’s not surprising that the Norwegian army is just one military publicly admitting it’s already using VR for training armoured vehicle crews.
For anti-terrorist units and other special forces, VR offers faster and cheaper ways to train operatives. Typically, before a unit conducts an operation such as a raid on a building an expensive mock-up of the site will be built for the unit to practice going through all the steps of the raid. VR offers the ability to do this much more cheaply and quickly.
Don’t forget entertainment
While there are any number of industrial and military uses for VR, consumer uptake will be driven by entertainment.
Video games and movies will become truly immersive experiences, as will more cultural pursuits such as virtual reality tours of art galleries and recreations of important archaeological site. Being able to view the videos of a concert, theatre or dance performance in VR also promises to be an engaging experience.
The opportunities are there for Australian businesses – all it takes is imagination.
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