In 2012, 19 year old Palmer Luckey raised $2.4 million through a Kickstarter campaign for a personal virtual reality gaming system, tentatively named Oculus VR. In March this year, Oculus was bought by Facebook for $2 billion, and in the process virtual reality was brought back into the mainstream. The device itself is fairly nondescript (picture ski goggles and an Xbox controller), but it’s the implications of the technology that’s gaining Oculus so much attention.
The screen wraps around the user’s eyes, immersing the player in a virtual world of their choosing. Technology which tracks head and eye movement leads to instant changes within the virtual world. Couple this technology with advances in body movement tracking, multi directional treadmills and extra sensory stimulation and you get a totally immersive, virtual world.
Despite only releasing a prototype, developers of the Oculus Rift (as it’s now called) believe the technology has the potential to revolutionise almost every facet of our world; from surgery to communication, and even to sex.
"Imagine a doctor piloting robotic arms, performing keyhole surgery from the other side of the world!"
The virtual reality (VR) technology will continue to improve and evolve in much the same way as all technologies do. Graphics will improve and bugs will be ironed out, while the design and concepts of the virtual landscapes will expand in both scale and complexity. The virtual landscapes of the future are touted to be indistinguishable from the physical reality we inhabit in everyday life – and that’s where things could get a little weird. Think Inception meets The Matrix minus the dystopia.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, the tech is only in its development stage. The first iterations of Oculus Rift have been solely targeted at the gaming community, with major game designers including Valve getting on board to produce beautifully crafted open worlds for players to explore. Using VR to improve the delivery of healthcare services to some of the world’s poorest people is also being explored. Imagine a doctor piloting robotic arms, performing keyhole surgery from the other side of the world! The possibilities for VR technology are endless.
There are of course draw backs to the VR revolution. Oculus users have experienced nausea and disorientation after prolonged use, a common issue with haptic systems. On a physical level, the simple hardware of the head-mounted displays can break the sense of immersion because of adjustments to the device or components such as wires and headphones turning into obstacles against natural movement.
Socially, some of the disadvantages of using virtual reality as entertainment have already started to surface, even without a fully immersive experience. Social isolation could eventually cause depression, disassociation and other conditions stemming from a lack of true physical interaction – something that has already been seen in online communities.
Negatives aside, Palmer Luckey’s Oculus Rift has brought us to the shore of an endless uncharted virtual ocean, and once the human race dives in, we might never be the same again.