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By this point, we are used to rolling our eyes at virtual reality hardware. The bulky headsets were all over the place in the VR bubble of the 90s, and countless companies sprang up to service what many were convinced would be the next great computer interface and entertainment medium. Even established companies like Nintendo and Sega made runs at bringing VR into the mainstream. But while the ideas were sound, the hardware of the time just couldn’t live up to its transformational promises. That may change in 2013.
The Oculus Rift is the brainchild of Palmer Luckey, an engineer who began his career working with Virtual Reality systems at USC. About the size of a pair of ski goggles, the Oculus contains twin cellphone screens, one for each eye, that are fed stereoscopic images from a computer. These 3D images are combined with motion tracking that allows you to turn your head in any direction to look around the virtual space you’re in. It uses the same basic ideas that were behind the VR headsets of the 90s, only now they’re powered by technology that has improved by several orders of magnitude.
Luckey got his initial funding for the company through Kickstarter, which brought in $2.4 million, along with a lot of skeptical comments about whether the company could pull off what they were promising. It appears they could. Oculus is showing off their developer kits in Las Vegas, and the kits are due to ship to backers in March 2013. The technology shows immense promise in a wide variety of fields, from gaming to medicine, architecture, and, intriguingly, movie-making.
Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus, says a device like the Oculus could be a boon to actors working in CG-heavy films, allowing them to visualize the computerized set in a whole new way. “We have a VR holodeck in our offices. If you have a scene rendered in the computer, with the Oculus, it’s now possible to plunk an actor down in the middle of that virtual world and let them look around the digital set.” The look of digitally manipulated actors could even be rendered into the world in real time. “If you put motion-capture trackers on, you’ll see yourself in real time when you look down.”
Iribe also points to the Oculus as a potential content-consumption device. “We can put an Imax theater in your living room,” he says. “When you look side-to-side, you’ll see the edges of the screen. Turn and look next to you, and you’ll see your friend, even if he’s logged in from another city.”
The Oculus is not a finished device. The developer kits the company is showing are prototypes only, but they work, and that in itself is remarkable. Iribe points out that with the pace of current technology acceleration, the finished product (not due to market for some time yet) will be more capable than what they’re showing now. And the company is committed to making sure the devices come out at a price point that will be accessible to the average consumer. “The implications of this device are quite staggering, actually,” says Scott Stein, a technology analyst with CNET. “This could make real waves in medicine, construction, entertainment — anything that requires modeling.”
Find more info at oculusvr.com
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