Virtual reality applications - about to hit the mainstream

Been picking up some really interesting developments in the last few days in the virtual reality field. It's amazing what Facebook's purchase of Oculus did - almost overnight we saw an experimental technology move into the mainstream, first in gaming circles and now into the general technology media. Within gaming, the advances have been rapid. I noticed this report, for example, from the E3 Conference by a journalist who'd just experienced a demo game using the new Oculus Dev Kit 2.0 (DK2). Despite being an experienced user of the first Dev Kit (DK1) he's almost breathless as he describes the improvements in motion blur, tracking and user interfaces. 

"A huge smile crosses my face. Not only have I not experienced anything outside of a first person experience on the Rift, but I wasn’t sure a 3rd person experience could be done well. Forgetting completely that DK2 has solved positional tracking, the natural inclination to lean in and check out the environment kicks in. I lean closer to the cute squirrel character and my mind is blown for what feels like the hundredth time since I first experienced the Rift. For the first time instead of being reminded that I’m not there in that cartoony world, my view leans with me. I start looking around the rest of the world pushing my face closer to objects, having them feel like they’re centimeters from my face."

Image courtesy NZ Gamer

Image courtesy NZ Gamer

After a pretty fun description of the game he's playing, called Lucky's Tale (involving what sounds like a successor to Sonic the Hedgehog) he concludes with the following words, "by the end of the demo I’ve shaken my head numerous times in disbelief and the muscles in my face are starting to hurt from the smile that’s determined to reach each ear. Not only has this one tech demo proven that without a doubt there is more to VR than first person experiences, but the numerous demos on the show floor seem to be wowing everyone and proving that people really are ready for Virtual Reality."

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The other development I thought was really interesting was this report by the always excellent MIT Technology Review, in which they talk about the rise of what's called virtual documentary making. The article focuses on the work by a documentary maker called Nonny de la Peña, a former classmate of Oculus Rift creator Palmer Lucky. They both studied together in 2012 at the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies. She's spent the last seven years trying to prove that VR will change journalism, since she believes it will offer offer a novel and compelling way to communicate and inform. Well, um yes! A doco on Syrian refugees is going to be a whole lot more visceral if you're actually walking through the footage itself.

Nonny de la Peña with VR headset Image courtesy MIT Technology Review

Nonny de la Peña with VR headset

Image courtesy MIT Technology Review

Apparently, she's managed to get to the point where it's now possible for viewers with virtual-reality goggles to have a wide field of view and freely walk around the environment of the documentary, which is rendered in 3-D. They are free to choose where they look and move but are unable to affect the linear nature of the nonfiction narrative. As la Peña explains, "I start with eyewitness video, audio, and photographs and then carefully reconstruct an event with high-end animations, environment models, and spatial soundscapes to create a first-person experience of the events.”

What both these articles suggest is that virtual reality environments are coming really fast - they are going to hit the mainstream far quicker than anyone expects. Inside niche tech circles this is now common knowledge, but for the vast majority of media and entertainment companies it's still a novelty. When you think about it, console gaming has been around in its current form since the 80s and early 90s. The biggest advancement in the last twenty years was the Nintendo Wii, but it didn't turn out to be quite the killer app that so many expected. And in the larger media world, cinema is still in a form pioneered a century ago (I still think 3-D is a bit of a gimmick, and doesn't fundamentally change the cinema experience). 

Oculus (and virtual reality technologies more generally) disrupt both of those industries completely. And that's just the start. As I've said a number of times before about this technology... watch this space.