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Virtual Reality – Just a gimmick or here to stay?

February 27, 2017 at 12:42 PM

Entering into a virtual world and interacting with one’s computer generated surroundings has been in the imaginations of science-fiction authors and adolescent minds for decades. However, while there was certainly an interest in such devices, ultimately early iterations such as 1995’s “Virtual Boy” failed to capture the general public’s interest (and money) due to hardware limitations, lack of games to play and clunky implementation.

 

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The cumbersome Virtual-boy and associated display from one of it's action titles.

 

Due to the financial risk & perceived lack of public interest, it would be seventeen years until another Virtual Reality (VR) headset would be presented to the Public. In 2012 a start-up company called Oculus started a kick-starter for the “Oculus Rift”. This provided a way for interested members of the public to invest in the development of a headset, free from any large investors.

It created such hype and interest that it hit its target of $250,000 USD in 24 hours. By the time the crowd-sourced funding ended, it had over $10 million dollars.

The Rift  headset went through several iterations- though all contained a screen, with a lens per eye of differing focuses to create a 3 Dimensional effect for the wearer (much in the same way as our regular eye-sight works). Additionally, it would track head movements, so one could look around in real time and have this reflected in the virtual world being viewed by the user. 

 

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The 3 iterations of the Oculus so far, on the far left is "Devkit 1", the middle is "Devkit 2 " and the right is the consumer ready version of Oculus Rift.

This particular kit allowed users the experience of sitting in a virtual cockpit of a space rocket at take-off, behind the wheel of a Formula-1 car, or observe wildlife & explore shipwrecks under the sea.  If you were after a little less adventure it can also enable you to sit in your own private cinema (or on the moon) enjoying your movies on the big screen or standing in the middle of a real-life crowd at a concert or festival as if you were there (minus the scents and shoving), or create elaborate 3 dimensional artworks one can physically interact with and walk around.

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The Oculus cinema allows users to view movies from their own private cinema. A person can also turn around to observe the projector, the seating or the fire escapes.

Marketing has also started to develop for this technology, creating Trailers for TV series, Movies and Video-games that the viewer essentially becomes a spectator within the virtual world being presented. This is particularly exciting when a trailer is taking you through a fight in a Victorian-era London street, or putting you on a speeder bike racing across a planet from Star Wars.

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One of the immersive Star Wars game-trailers that can be viewed in Virtual Reality. Now there are more ways to experience motion sickness.

The Oculus VR headset generated such interest the project was purchased by Facebook for a cool sum of $2 billion USD combined value in cash and Facebook stock.  

zuckerberg_vr.jpgFacebooks Mark Zuckerberg trialling his companies latest acquisition.

Many other companies have also started developing their own VR headsets. At the entry-level end there are the Google “Cardboard” & “Daydream” & Samsung “GearVR”. These VR headsets use a regular powerful smartphone which attaches to the front of a set of goggles and the phones display becomes the main processing unit that displays dual pictures and tracks movement.

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The GearVR connects to a compatible Samsung phone which acts as the main processor and display for the unit. This is the most readily  accessible level of Virtual Reality available for under a thousand dollars.

There are also purpose built headsets, like previously mentioned the Oculus Rift, Sony Morpheus and HTC Vive. Generally, these have a better quality display and a richer set of features. Popular for serious entertainment enthusiasts and gamers alike.

What brings the technology from being a mere gimmick (limited to only people with disposable ncome) are some of the practical uses that this equipment is being implemented for.

On the Medical front there’s several applications for Virtual reality, both hands-on and hands-free.

A brain surgery training simulation called Neurotouch has been around since 2009 and allows neuro-surgeons to practice removing a cancerous tumour from the brain in a virtual setting, before applying their skill on a live patient who would undoubtedly have more to lose (I would hope).

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To see NeuroTouch in action, click on picture (Warning: Viewer discretion is advised)

Something that made the news last year in April was the first live-stream VR operation. The procedure was to remove cancerous tissue and was broadcast across the world with full 360 degrees of view, allowing med-school students (and keen tech enthusiasts) to dial into the live operation via the ‘Medical Realities’ website to look around the theatre and see and hear everything as if they were standing at the operating table.

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A 360-degree camera commonly used to provide recordings and live-feeds of medical procedures, concerts and anywhere that might be inaccessible

Real Estate are another industry that stand to benefit from Virtual Reality. Imagine being able to show prospective clients a house or apartment allowing them to get a feel for the layout before they ever set foot there? Being able to move and place furniture in a virtual space to work out whether ones existing TV and couch will fit in a new apartment is certainly a useful feature, and something that developers are currently fine tuning.

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Dreams are free: The viewpoint of a lavish apartment through VR. The brain combines the 2 images for a 3d effect.

At a more accessible level; there are countless VR applications for travel that allow a person to jump into any part of the world – from Alaska to Zimbabwe. One of my personal favourites accessible via the GearVR 360 photo stills are of the Ancient Egyptian wonders. This also has major implications for travel agents, who aside from a few brochures and websites may struggle to give their prospective customers an impression of a holiday destination in the way that a Virtual Reality headset can.

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This is a picture of the Egyptian Pyramids. Many other immersive pictures are available via Oculus photos.

Virtual reality is also starting to be trialled in educational institutes across the world allowing a small number of university students to sit in on lectures remotely (via 360-degree camera) – something sure to boost attendance rates mid-trimester, or allow school children to get a little closer to their subject matter, be it wildlife or viewing the streets in another country from the safety of the classroom. In the future this might even mean reducing the footprint of our educational institutes and allow learning to take on a more mobile nature.

The final use of VR I’ll talk about today are simulators. While the roller-coasters are certainly entertaining, the real advancements that can make a difference are for flight simulators and driving simulators. Existing simulators are large, clunky and expensive – limiting accessibility for professionals and creating long queues at museums for those of us who want to crash into Auckland Airport. With these Virtual Reality headsets and a moderately powerful PC, inexperienced pilots could practice in their own home flying the exact same model of aeroplane before they ever take to the skies.

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 Buzz Aldrin plays the Apollo 11 experience in VR. Click the picture to view the video.

At the moment, Virtual reality is still in it’s infancy, however unlike previous generations the technology has matured enough. With countless new companies developing for this new educational/entertainment platform, Virtual Reality looks like it’s here to stay.

If you’d like to inquire more about Virtual Reality, or would like us to price together and build a Virtual-Reality capable PC for you, give us a call 04 974 9051 and we can help get you setup.  




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