Living in the matrix: the developing world of virtual reality

  A man sprints through a battlefield, bullets fly by as enemies rush from behind. The glaring sun forces him to squint as he watches a comrade lob a grenade across the line. He grabs the goggles on his face, and with one swift motion, he is back in his living room, serene and far away from any actual combat scenario.

This immersive experience is possible through the development of virtual reality. Virtual reality (VR) uses computer-generated experiences to simulate real-life environments. Users can experience sight, taste, touch, sound, and smell of any place with the right technology. Once thought of as science fiction, VR has now become an entirely accessible experience.

VR was a prominent focus during the early 1990s. The gaming industry sought new ways to display content, however technology had not developed enough to accommodate this goal. The VR world surfaced again in recent years as companies such as Oculus, Sony, and Google began developing new headsets and immersive systems for the average consumer.

The company Oculus VR became pioneers of wearable virtual reality technology with the development of a head-mounted display designed to submerse players in a gaming experience.

In March 2014, Facebook purchased the company Oculus VR for $2 billion. Both developers and fans expressed concern that Facebook would push Oculus- originally an independent company- in the wrong direction. The Oculus development kit was initially financed through Kickstarter, an international crowd-funding website.

In September 2014 at Berlin’s IFA conference, Oculus announced that it would pair with Samsung to create the first consumer VR device. According to a recent report by TechSci Research, the United States virtual reality market will experience a growth rate of 30% from 2013 to 2018.

Other devices, such as the Microsoft Kinect, create in-game visuals based on the player’s actual surroundings. Released in 2008, the Kinect is the premiere consumer motion sensor. As opposed to Oculus, which creates computer-generated environments, Kinect scans the players’ room to create on-screen augmented realities.

Microsoft employee Katherine Harris said Kinect differs from other technologies such as Oculus because it focuses on space rather than visual experience. Harris, a game developer and programmer, expressed hope that these two fields could combine to create a more immersive gaming experience.

“I think that Kinect is more a spatial virtual reality while the others are visual realities or augmented realities,” Harris said. “So combining spatial awareness and visual awareness together would be really cool.”

Groups such as Virtual Reality Los Angeles (VRLA) have formed to unite VR developers and enthusiasts alike. Hundreds gather to discuss recent developments in the industry and test out new technologies, typically integrated with the Oculus Rift.

The meet up group Orange County Virtual Reality (OCVR) hosted its fifth developer “Hackathon” in early December. At the event gamers spent 48 hours together, developing new games integrated with VR tech such as Oculus Rift and Leap Motion- a system that tracks hand movements and simulates them in the Oculus. It was an intellectual marathon of gaming creativity.

OCVR cofounder Dylan Watkins expressed the potential of VR to rule the future of gaming by merging storytelling with high-resolution graphics and visual immersion. Gamers will not only be outside players, but will be able to in a sense jump into the worlds of any chosen game.

“My thought is that virtual reality is the ultimate medium of sharing ideas or experiences and ultimately, humans are born to share experiences,” Watkins said.

“We love to get what’s in our heads to the other person and say wasn’t that awesome or terrifying or whatever and being the ultimate medium, it brings the pinnacle of art and technology together.”

Virtual reality has potential beyond entertainment. Certain technologies can be applied in fields ranging from medicine to early education. Medical students can learn procedures by engaging the subject in a virtual environment, allowing them to gain skills without putting patients at risk. Think of it as the ultimate simulator, where a student can be engaged in a virtual activity without having to face the potential obstacles of the real, biological world. Younger students could take in depth tours of historical monuments from the comfort of a classroom.

The military has already implemented VR technology to simulate stressful scenarios for trainees. These range from parachute jumps to close combat. In fact, some of the earliest VR prototypes were developed within the military industrial complex.

The company VirtuSphere designed a large, perforated acrylic sphere, which allows users to move continuously in place, similar to a hamster ball. By combining endless motion with Oculus tech, the sphere can be used by the military and gamers alike to simulate different environments.

Virtushphere employee Michael Douglas said that this system is one of few in its field. Technology integrating full-body motion is still in its nascent stages.

“It gets people thinking about other ways to maybe make some motion, but I think it still has a way to go,” Douglas said. “There’s probably some technology we’re just not thinking of yet, but right now it’s pretty much all there is for the price.”

The consumer model of Oculus Rift is slated for release in 2015. Developers continue to host monthly conventions to create games suited for VR platforms and promote the expansion of virtual reality into everyday life.