About a week ago, one of my cohorts in a virtual reality (VR) project called me aside in the lab to show me a special piece of equipment that had just arrived for our project. After a dramatic pause, I opened the door to our workshop area and was greeted by the simple, angular, black headset of an Oculus Rift lying on my workstation table.
At this point, I am told, I made a noise comparable to “several district’s worth of dog kennels being simultaneously electrocuted”, and the rest of my team had to be submitted for inner ear reconstruction.
Hyperbole aside, getting a chance to work with an Oculus is pretty exciting. Seeing the device in the news or on YouTube does the product a disservice – the experience is not one that can represented properly in the third person.
From the moment you put it on, the Rift is a very personal product – the environment you perceive, delivered via two screens for the offset 3D effect to each eye, is not one that you can share with the people around you.
Instead, they have to wait patiently for their turn to get back in on the action, smiling wryly as you blunder around in your own little reverie. The experience of suddenly entering an entirely new virtual space just by putting on a headset is disorienting, so you will stumble.
Every user that put on our Rift made at least one attempt to balance themselves on a virtual object that only they could see, flailing their arms wildly amid the ensuing laughter before several amused helpers rushed in to rebalance them. Unfortunately, another universal but less desired effect of using the Rift is that of motion sickness – every single one of us got nauseatingly sick for about half an hour after putting it on.
This disorientation could make the device a hard sell to its intended audience in the gaming market, where fast- paced motion is the norm and persistent nausea from a gaming session would be predictably unwelcome.
But motion sickness from the latest FPS (first person shooter) may not be such an issue for the Rift’s unexpected new owner: Facebook. The social media giant announced the two billion dollar purchase of the VR company this Tuesday, voicing their hopes that virtual reality will usher in a new era of interactive communication between people across the globe.
“We’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences [than gaming],” Zuckerberg said in a public statement.
“Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home.”
It’s a sensible move by a company seeking to establish themselves as a universal means of communication. Virtual reality is the perfect way to share a private or public virtual space with someone across the globe, and the absence of the physical demands of gaming could avoid the feelings of disorientation and sickness that come with mismatches between real and virtual motion.
Rather than being just another means of getting online and blowing up aliens, VR could be the way you visit your family or check-in with your boss on a sick day, successful in ways that teleconferencing and video chat cannot be.
Not everyone is happy about the change, and the purchase brought some developers to drop support of the platform on hearing of the reduced focus on gaming. But luckily for those who might doubt Facebook’s motives, the market is rapidly expanding.
Sony has recently announced the Project Morpheus headset as a direct competitor to the Rift, and accessories and innovations for VR continue to expand.
It’s possible that virtual reality may become the next motion control for gaming, universally distributed to every household with a console. But VR is one of the first gaming technologies that has the potential to be more than a toy – virtual spaces not just for entertainment, but for social and business environments as well.
Hopefully we’ll have the common sense to keep ourselves reined in, lest our streets and offices be filled with blind zombies in goofy headsets, wildly flapping their arms in a game only they can see.
Copeland is a member of the Class of 2015.