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Oculus Rift – disruptive technology?

Posted by on March 27, 2016.

With its public release imminent and its starting retail price finally revealed, most people will be aware of the Oculus Rift. The upcoming virtual reality console is very much in the media limelight right now, with both positive and negative press generating attention.

While the Rift is certainly the spearhead of mainstream virtual reality, it’s not the only device in development to target this new market. Sony and HTC are both developing their own VR devices, but with the Oculus’ marketplace operating on the same relatively open principles as Google Play and the Apple Store, it’s probably safe to say that any attribute that can apply to the Rift can apply to other devices as well. But is this ‘VR Revolution’ just a new gimmick, or does it have the potential to be something much more?

VR headsets might not be new, but the promise of accessible, mass-marketable and stable virtual reality certainly is. However, this will not be the first time gaming equipment has seen use outside of the video game world. In 2012, the Microsoft Kinect found its way into the operating theatre, as a tool to assist doctors with keyhole surgery. The Kinect’s control scheme being based on gesture and voice commands allowed doctors to manipulate 3D images vital to the surgery without having to come into contact with non-sterile devices or rely on assistance. (See here and here.)

As recently as December 2015, a new app on the Xbox Marketplace introduced a non-gaming innovation to the Kinect; an application called The Mall virtualised a clothes shopping experience – consumer-orientated, and far less altruistic than the medical potential of the Kinect, but an innovation nonetheless. Using the Kinect’s camera, users are able to get an idea of how a given piece of apparel would look on them, and then order it within the app. Although on release there were still some functionality issues with The Mall, it demonstrates that there are both consumers and developers who want to take gaming devices beyond the use of video games alone.

Even Nintendo’s DS line of handheld devices has pushed into non-gaming realms. The ball started rolling with borderline games like Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training and Big Brain Academy; collections of brain teasers and puzzles intended to provide mental exercise. In 2010, Art Academy was released for the Nintendo DS, which went even further and used the touchscreen technology to teach drawing and painting techniques.

The idea of gaming devices finding uses outside pure entertainment is certainly nothing new, but those applications have always been pushed to the sidelines. Whether it’s motion controls in the operating theatre or touchscreens to teach artistic techniques, the bulk of the attention has always gone to gaming. Virtual reality, however, introduces new capabilities and new concepts that previous control schemes could not have hoped to match. With the Rift being first and foremost a gaming device, some of this potential could go untapped. However, the expanded use of virtual reality is already in a promising position, with both games and other experiences being developed prior to mass release.

Perhaps, given the Rift’s purchase by Facebook back in March 2014, it’s not surprising that social networking features are being planned for the platform. At the F8 conference in March 2015, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would soon add support for panoramic, 360° videos, a feature that seems tailor-made to tie in with the Oculus Rift, allowing users wearing the headset to simulate the experience of being ‘in’ the photographs – sure to be a big hit between friends who can afford the relevant devices. (More here and here.)

On the subject of 360° filmmaking, it’s possible that the Rift and other devices will open up new cinematic experiences. Studios such as Littlstar, VRSE and Jaunt VR are producing short films using the ‘spherical’ cameras. The completed projects are already interactive from 2D devices, an in-browser interface allowing users to click and drag to view the scene while it is playing. These films are also compatible with mobile VR viewers such as Google Cardboard – this is, literally, a piece of ready-to-fold cardboard which converts your smartphone into a pair of viewing goggles. While it seems unlikely to become the next big innovation in mainstream cinema, these short films are sure to benefit greatly from the added immersion and stronger media buzz of full VR headsets. (See http://littlstar.com/, http://vrse.com/http://www.jauntvr.com/#about)

One idea that has yet to be fully explored is the combination of Google Streetview with the Rift’s virtual eyeview. While it’s already possible to access Streetview using the Rift, it doesn’t have fully integrated functionality. Looking around still depends on the standard click-and-drag motion, rather than the Rift’s motion sensor. With Google, Oculus VR and any third party who cares to make an app that would integrate both Google Map data and motion-controlled viewing, this seems a likely prospect to be taken up some time in the future.

And there’s yet more to be explored in the Rift’s future. Already, some of the scientific potential of the hardware is being investigated. BeAnotherLab conducted a sociological experiment with an early build of the Rift two years ago, using the headsets to allow men and women to see from the others’ viewpoint. Asking the subjects to synchronise their movements as best they could, they simulated a full-blown body-swap experience. Education, too, can benefit from the virtualisation offered by the headset; a professor in Boston is using the Oculus Rift and video games such as Minecraft in after-school activities, teaching children the basics of the scientific method and creative skills.

Art, as well as science, can find new avenues to explore with the VR revolution. Tilt Brush is digital painting software, much like Photoshop or Corel painter, but which uses a fully 3D, virtual reality workspace to allow artists to ‘paint’ in three dimensions. While an interesting development, it carries the obvious disadvantage that any artworks created with it would require the audience to have access to virtual reality as well, in order to fully enjoy them.

Before it has even been released, developers and creators are experimenting with the Rift’s power outside of video gaming. Unlike those innovative gaming devices that have gone before it, Oculus VR even seems to be acknowledging and encouraging the extended potential of the device. Many applications which don’t quite fit into the parameters of a ‘game’ are now being called ‘experiences’. Several such applications have been in development since before the Facebook buyout, and have such varied goals as recreating cinematic experiences, simulating the feeling of flying, or simply giving the user a first-person perspective from their remote controlled drone’s camera. Perhaps more than any ‘gaming’ device in history, the Rift is gearing up to exercise its capabilities in as many spheres of life as possible.

However, the Oculus Rift and the new wave of Virtual Reality must take care not to fall into the gaming industry’s pitfalls. Many of gaming’s innovations over the last decade or so have been decried as ‘gimmicky’ – motion controllers, touchscreens, gesture-based control schemes – and so far, that has mostly proved to be true. The Oculus Rift and its VR competitors may well prove to be just another gaming gimmick to flood the market and then be forgotten; but it has greater potential than any of gaming’s innovations that have come before it.

What amounts to a hat with two screens and basic motion controls may not sound like such a big deal, but people are already showing that it allows for ideas and activities that could never have been attempted before. Flooding the Oculus’ marketplace with products that fail to capitalise on this capability could quickly turn more serious developers away, as it did with the Nintendo Wii and other motion-based peripherals that followed it.

The cultural impact of the Oculus Rift and virtual reality will soon begin to unfold. The capabilities and limitations of the platform are already set, and what follows will be determined mostly by reputation and public perception. A marketplace saturated with quick cash-ins, shallow ideas and stilted uses of the VR technology could well see the console failing, and becoming another footnote of the industry. Developers and consumers will have an equal role in shaping not only the Rift’s future, but the future of all gaming devices and the direction of the industry.

by Josh Townsend

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