Dr Helen Farley writes:
I can remember sitting on the couch, pillow scrunched under my chin, eyes averted from the TV as I watched Pierce Brosnan battling a virtual reality superbeing and former gardener in The Lawnmower Man. In this movie, Jobe, a simple-minded gardener, was transformed into a telekinetic hypergenius with just a few sessions of Remington Steele’s VR.
The movie foretold a scary future but also one full of promise for virtual reality. Way back in 1992, we believed that our whole field of vision had to be occupied by a virtual space and our movements translated directly onto those of an avatar for us to feel as if we were really there.
This engenders a phenomenon called ‘presence’; it’s like diving into another world. The reality was that VR stereoscopic displays and wired gloves were really too expensive to make much impact on the market. And millions of gamers across the planet amply demonstrated that a joystick and standard computer display were enough to make them feel ‘present’ when the game and accompanying narrative were sufficiently compelling.
With virtual reality almost a relic of this educator’s lost dream, my pulse quickened when I heard the mysterious name of Oculus Rift. Visions of The Lawnmower Man flashed across my mind’s eye, but I also remembered how much I had wanted to be part of an alternate reality, trying on another world or identity on for size. I was excited and had to know more.
Oculus VR is a small start-up focused on enabling virtual reality videogames. The idea is that the Oculus Drift headset plugs into a PC and the virtual environment is displayed right across the field of vision. The ultimate plan is for the display to be HD though this hasn’t been achieved as yet. The other really enticing thing is that the Oculus Drift will hit the stores at around $300; thousands less than most VR headsets.
A lot has happened since The Lawnmower Man graced cinema screens back in 1992. We’ve relived the ‘80s, all manner of crazy dance moves have come and gone, and mobile learning has emerged as the potential panacea for all our learning ills. Is there still a place for virtual reality and the Oculus Rift in a world where mobile is king?
My partner frequently hassles me about my serious case of GAS, and before you move to another page, let me explain. GAS or ‘Gear Acquisition Syndrome’ may manifest in a musician as a prodigious collection of guitars and effects pedals; in a photographer as a surfeit of lenses, filters and camera bodies. In me, it’s mostly mobile devices and gadgets, PDAs, phones of various stripes and eReaders with a range of displays. The Oculus Rift is prime for incorporation into my digital collection but can I justify it?
Naturally enough, to counter the economic arguments of my partner, James, I had to get a justification ready prior to purchase. But I think the creators of the Oculus Rift may be onto something. I find myself in the odd spot of researching virtual worlds and mobile devices.
Maybe you don’t need your field of vision totally occupied to engender presence, but you do need a good part of it. Presence is also more likely if you can shut everything else out too. I’ve wondered how virtual worlds can be used with mobile devices when they necessarily can’t engender presence because the screens are too small.
The great advantage that virtual worlds have over teleconferencing or Skype is that you feel like you’re really sharing a space with someone when you share a space in a virtual world. That just doesn’t happen with Skype. But it’s not going to happen when you’re accessing a virtual world with a mobile phone either. Enter the Oculus Rift.
The developers of the Oculus Rift are also planning to enable the headset to plug into mobile devices. The downside of this is the phone needs to be pretty powerful to run the display. Until now this has just been a pipedream, but with the release of the new iPhone 5c and 5s (also prime for GAS incorporation) this is now tantalisingly close.
As much as virtual worlds accessed on a mobile device and viewed through the Oculus Rift have enormous potential for remote meetings, conferences and so on, the real promise in this configuration lies in augmented reality. In just a few minutes I can think of a number of killer apps: agricultural extension with images superimposed on the crops of pest species displayed in 3D that a farmer can walk around, Indigenous storytelling with characters superimposed over the landscape, workplace training, surgery with dotted lines to show where a less confident surgeon should cut. This is by no means an exhaustive list (I’m saving that for later versions).
I think I’ve amply made my case, and within a short time of the release of the Oculus Rift, I’ll have one of those in my collection. Also exciting, the developers are planning on releasing a version with an embedded Android chip so you won’t need an additional device to power it. Wonder how I’ll justify that? Anyhow, to find out more about Oculus Rift, head to the website
In the meantime, if you’re looking for a cheap PDA with low kilometres, drop me an email.
Image credit: Oculus Rift by Javier Domínguez Ferreiro used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)