Back in the 1930s, the American science-fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum published a short story entitled “Pygmalion’s Spectacles”. The story centred around a goggle-based device that immersed the wearer in a holographic projection of fictional experiences.
Since Weinbaum’s somewhat prophetic vision, several attempts have been made to create a virtual world. Last year, technology company Oculus VR launched a new VR headset called Oculus Rift. Sleek and lightweight, it offers users a truly immersive (and strikingly real) experience, bringing a new lease of life to the quest for virtual reality and heralding not just a new age for gaming but a truly virtual future with the potential to take consumer experience to the next level.
Here are five things you should know about this cutting-edge device:
1. It started with a startup — now it’s a phenomenon
In fact, it all started with an adolescent electronics whizzkid tinkering in his parents’ garage. A keen gamer, Palmer Luckey (now 23 and founder of Oculus VR) was constantly in search of an ever more immersive experience.
Luckey was convinced that he could improve on the VR headsets available at the time, all of which were plagued by seemingly irresolvable technical issues that resulted in a less than perfect experience. By tinkering and tweaking, Luckey produced the sixth-generation Rift prototype in 2011. In order to fund a developer kit based on this prototype, he set up a Kickstarter campaign with an initial goal of $250,000. He ended up raising over $2 million.
Fast-forward a few months, and with a couple of modifications from gaming legend John Cormack, Rift was ready for demo. It has since gone through two more transformations, each time blowing people’s minds yet more.
2. Oculus Rift gives you experiences you’ll likely never get in real life
So what makes it quite so mindblowing? For a start, it provides total immersion. The headset is worn over the eyes, completely filling the user’s field of vision with a stereoscopic view on a crisp LCD screen. It is lightweight and isn’t tiring on the eyes. But above all, it offers a 365° 3D experience with none of the nausea-inducing lag that previous devices just couldn’t seem to shake off. It can therefore offer convincing experiences that are rare or even non-existent in the real world, everything from exploring the ocean depths or flying like a bird through an imaginary world to going kiteboarding or even finding out what it’s like to be guillotined — all from the comfort of an armchair.
3. Oculus Rift lets you swap gender
Although not on the market yet, the virtual possibilities Oculus Rift offers are already being pushed to their extreme by people outside the gaming world. In a recent art project entitled The Machine to be Another created by the design collective BeAnotherLab, men and women were given the chance to “swap gender”. Stood facing each other wearing the headset, they were able to see out of one another’s eyes, effectively “switching bodies”.
4. Oculus Rift was bought by Facebook for $2 billion
This kind of experiment shows the wide-ranging scope of Oculus that stretches way beyond gaming. It is precisely this huge potential that prompted Facebook to buy Oculus VR for a whopping $2 billion in March last year. Bearing in mind that this is a company whose product isn’t even commercial yet, that is an astounding sum for Facebook to fork out. As the social network’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a statement:
After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home.
This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.
5. Oculus Rift is already being leveraged by forward-thinking brands
The kind of “experiences and adventures” Mark Zuckerberg talked about in his statement are already being created by certain brands. Recently, international men’s skincare brand Biotherm Homme (part of the L’Oréal group) teamed up with their spokesperson, kiteboarding champion Youri Zoon, and Oculus Rift to create “the vision of a champion”. A camera was attached to Youri who then set off on his kiteboard, skimming over the waves and flying through the air with incredible speed and agility. The cameras captured 360° footage of the entire session. When Youri put on the headset after the session, he was blown away, exclaiming that Oculus Rift had taken virtual reality “to another level”. Guests at the brand’s 30th anniversary party in February were able to try out this thrilling immersive experience and feel the incredible freedom of jumping, flying and twisting over the water — all without even getting their feet wet.
What was science-fiction in the 1930s has now become a reality and the potential that remains to be exploited is huge. Oculus Rift will transform the world we live in, blurring yet further the boundaries between the real and the virtual and offering a host of possibilities for consumer engagement.