Virtual reality ready for reboot as Oculus Rift headset comes on market

Oculus Rift will bring VR into your living room next year – thanks to Kickstarter


Remember watching the original Tron, and marvelling at the computer-generated world the film-makers created? The idea of a digital universe you could get lost in was a long way off back then.

But with wearable technology growing in popularity, virtual reality is suddenly becoming less of a far-off possibility and more of a certainty.

In fact, the virtual reality market could be worth as much as $60 billion in the next decade, research firm Piper Jaffray has said. The company is betting that consumers will adopt the technology enthusiastically due to an “insatiable appetite”.

Everyone is getting on board. Google’s latest project, codenamed “Jump”, is aiming to turn YouTube into a hub for virtual-reality video content. That means making it easier to record the video in addition to finding it on the video-sharing website.

One of the driving forces behind this new push for VR is Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that has managed to reignite the appetite for the technology over the past couple of years. Introduced in 2012, the project has been in development ever since, and it’s set for release early in 2016.

The original idea came from Palmer Lucky, who wanted to create a better, more affordable headset for gamers. The company has taken that idea and run with it. Two development kits later, it’s almost ready to release the final product.

It’s been a long road to get the headset to this point. More than 9,500 people pledged a total of $2.4 million on Kickstarter to back the project, some spending $300 to get the early versions of the headset, others content to throw $10 or so to a project they thought might make it.

There’s a twist to the crowd-funding tale though. In March 2014, Facebook said it would buy Oculus in a deal worth up to $2 billion. The Oculus team seemed optimistic that it would lead to better things for virtual reality.

“This partnership is one of the most important moments for virtual reality: it gives us the best shot at truly changing the world,” the company said in an update on its Kickstarter page.

But the sale caused a bit of controversy. In fact some people who had planned to hook up with Oculus on projects for Rift subsequently backed out. Most notable of these was Minecraft creator Markus “Notch” Persson, who said plans for an Oculus version of Minecraft were now dead in the water. Facebook, he said, “creeps me out”. It may not be a permanent thing though; as of last August, Notch had got over his upset with Oculus and was more concerned with the state of his favourite socks (last update: one hole that mysteriously appeared).

There’s still no official Minecraft version of Oculus, although an app called Minecrift brings the experience to the Rift.

Labour of love

Notch wasn’t the only one eyeing the acquisition warily. Oculus, once a Kickstarter project, also came in for a beating from its original backers, who weren’t best pleased that the labour of love they’d backed in the days when it turned to crowdfunding to raise cash was now selling up to the Silicon Valley social network. While there were some messages of support and congratulations posted in response to the announcement, there were many other angry comments. More than one claimed the firm was selling out, while others said they would be looking for alternative products because of its association with Facebook.

The applications for VR technology are only limited by the imagination of those implementing it. Aside from gaming and other entertainment, there are already some companies using it as a business tool. For example, Thomas Cook has used it in a concept store to show holidaymakers around holiday locations; Emirates Innovation Lab has developed a way to use the headset to show potential travellers around its A380 planes and cabins; and the Moveo Foundation has used the device to give medical students a view of a surgery. Lexus is also planning to use the technology in its showrooms as a sales tool to better illustrate the different options on offer with each model.

Learning and drones

The varied applications are also something that UCD has been investigating in its computer science and informatics lab, with the school conducting experiments on virtual learning and remote control drones. Not only could the technology be used to help provide a more immersive learning environment, but it could also take a significant hand in tasks such as managing remote facilities through the use of drones.

One thing that may hamper its adoption is, as always, money. If the latest news is to be believed, getting Oculus Rift will be a slightly pricey experience. According to chief executive Brendan Iribe, it will cost in the region of $1,500 for both the headset and a VR-ready PC. That’s not the highest price tag out there, and it’s about the same level as Google’s Glass Explorer programme; it’s not exactly a throwaway purchase either though. But if that’s out of your reach, don’t panic. According to Piper Jaffray researchers, the all-in entry cost for the hardware should drop to about $300 from $800, and smartphone makers could even offer the headsets for free.

Rivals to Oculus Rift

GOOGLE GLASS More augmented reality than virtual reality, Glass may be out of favour at the moment, but Google isn’t giving up on its wearable project. Glass Explorers paid $1,500 for the privilege of being one of the early adopters of the device, only to find that not only were they acting as unofficial marketers for Google, but some places had banned them – even before they were even widely available – and they’d been tagged with a nickname, the Glasshole. Some “Explorers” embraced them more enthusiastically than others, with tech blogger Robert Schoble even wearing them in the shower. Google has ended the Explorer programme, but it’s apparently concentrating on getting Glass ready for a retail release.

MICROSOFT HOLOLENS Microsoft’s HoloLens project is another step up from the Rift and other VR devices. It’s a holographic computer platform that could be used for anything from designing buildings to having Skype conversations with friends. It’s set to work with Windows 10 and its universal apps, but there’s no definite launch date yet. Microsoft has been busy, showing off the headset in more detail at its Build conference in April, and the general buzz is that HoloLens has potential.

SAMSUNG GEAR VR Built using Oculus’s technology, the Gear VR needs one vital thing to work: a mobile phone. Yes, you strap the phone to your face. Sort of. The device uses either the Note 4 or the Samsung Galaxy S6 as a screen, which means the headset itself is reasonably cheap, but you’ll have to shell out for the phone – not a cheap proposition.

HTC VIVE The HTC Vive was a bit of a show-stealer when it was announced at Mobile World Congress in February. Based on SteamVR, the headset looks similar to the Oculus Rift and will connect to your PC to run games and virtual reality software. Gaming is, obviously, a big part of the SteamVR appeal.

The Vive also works with base stations, called Lighthouse, that map your room and stop you head-butting a wall while you’re enthusiastically playing, and two controllers that also feed into the tracking system.

PROJECT MORPHEUS Sony’s virtual reality punt in the games industry isn’t available yet either, but we could be looking at June next year before the new system is available. It’s designed primarily as a gaming peripheral, which means that things are about to get a lot more realistic for console gamers. Expect more information after E3 later in June.

GOOGLE CARDBOARD The Oculus isn’t available, the Gear VR may not be compatible, HoloLens is still some way off and the Vive headset won’t be available as a consumer device in the near future. But there’s one thing that is already available: Google Cardboard. Sure, it sounds more like an April Fool’s gag than a serious product, but it exists. And it’s cheap too, at about $25. You use your existing smartphone, and Google recently updated it to allow for screen sizes up to 6 inches. That makes it virtual reality for nearly everyone.

Aiming for remote teaching: Virtual reality at UCD

At UCD, virtual reality is a serious thing. While many are looking at the possibility of using virtual reality for business or entertainment, UCD and its computer science and informatics school sees it more as a learning tool.

There are two main areas where researchers are currently working: one is in the use of drones and using virtual reality for remote controlling the machines; the other is in setting up a virtual campus for students.

“We’ve set up our own virtual learning environment. Eventually, we hope to get to the stage where we can teach remotely,” explained Dr Abraham Campbell.

The research team there is also seeking to expand its projects, with funding applications in the pipeline.

Although much of the coverage of virtual reality is concentrating on the positive applications for the technology, there are some caveats. It’s not suitable for younger children, for example, with under-13s discouraged from using it. There’s also the possibility that an immersive world such as what VR provides could be addictive.

“If you can learn in virtual reality, you can also learn the wrong thing. Gaming addiction is a real thing,” said Dr Campbell. “But at some stage the amazing possibilities of the technology in the long term would outweigh this.”

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