Remember the promise of virtual reality and how strapping on a pair of goggles could blot out the world around you and take you inside a new world full of amazing experiences and visual sensations?
And then remember how you haven't heard much about that in recent years?
Well, to paraphrase a famous line from Jack Nicholson in The Shining, "It's baaack!"
And, like most hi-tech innovations since Shawn Fanning's peer-to-peer music sharing system called Napster, this breakthrough VR technology comes from a guy who invented it three years ago at home when he was all of 18. His name is Palmer Luckey, and what he invented is called the Oculus Rift.
His name is appropriate, since another wunderkind, Mark Zuckerberg, recently paid $2 billion in cash and stock for the Oculus VR (virtual reality) system. Zuckerberg paid the price because he sees this system as one that can drastically change the way we use use social media, and he would prefer his Facebook not get left behind.
Among the benefits of the Oculus Rift is that it overcomes a big headache (literally and figuratively) of traditional VR devices. Here is how Wired magazine's Peter Rubin described that problem:
"It couldn't just be really good. It had to be perfect. In a traditional videogame, too much latency is annoying -- you push a button and by the time your action registers onscreen, you're already dead. But with virtual reality, it's nauseating. If you turn your head and the image on the screen that's inches from you eyes doesn't adjust instantaneously, your visual system conflicts with your vestibular system, and you get sick. There were a million little problems like that ... that would need to be solved if virtual reality were ever to become more than a futurist's fantasy."
So Luckey solved them.
The result, says Rubin: "Oculus has almost single-handedly revived that dream."
Here's what Zuckerberg himself sees in the way of possibilities for the Oculus system:
"Imagine enjoying a courtside seat a game, studying in a clasroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting with a doctor face-to-face -- just by putting on goggles in your home."
Oculus, in effect, is a VR system that leaves the concept of immersion in the rear-view mirror. In its place it achieves true presence, which Rubin calls "the feeling of actually existing in a virtual space ... As far as your brain is concerned, there's no difference between experiencing something on the Rift and experiencing it in the real world."
And that has never been done before.
With Oculus, we not only can look at what's in front of us, but we can look behind those objects, under them, over them, and all around them. In fact, this is a 360-degree, full vision world. And if we turn our head, the VR world turns with it, instanteously. No motion sickness, no clues this is not the real world we are "in."
The consumer version of the Oculus Rift VR head-mounted display is expected to arrive in stores within the next 12 months with a price tag of around $350.
As with other digital innovations, the Oculus Rift poses questions about how it may affect our daily lives which, of course, is the focus of this Virtual Unknown blog. Here are a few starter questions, for example:
* Will the technology in Oculus VR mean we will be strapping on goggles and interacting with Facebook friends in a 360-degree, 3D world that our brain swears is a real world?
* Might this take us even farther than the VR relationship between Theodore and Samantha depicted in the film, Her? Instead of just experiencing her on a flat screen, would Theodore be able to join her in her VR world, if he were using Oculus?
* Given the amount of time we all spend staring at our iPhones or tablets now, won't we spend at least that amount of time with goggles strapped to our head that blots out the real world, and the real people around us? If so, will that great for a marriage relationship, or getting to bond with your friends?
* Might Oculus VR technology offer new hope for invalids, shut-ins, and the elderly who thought their days of social interaction were over? Facebook has already helped, but would spending time in a VR world be even better?
* Assuming you could create an avatar and alternative persona of yourself, would Oculus allow you to enter and indugle yourself in a fantasy world that would totally eclipse the old Fantasy Island TV depiction from the 1970s?
* In my own profession of teaching, wouldn't Oculus VR technology greatly expand the possibilities of online education? If you can meet and interact in a 3D world with other students (from anywhere in the world by the way), what does that say about the need for physical university campuses?
Much of this seems pretty hard to digest, no? But isn't that the same thing we though about the life-changing impact of the Internet back in the ancient 1990s? Any doubters still left about that?
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