Whether it’s Neal Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash,’ Ernie Cline’s nostalgic nerd adventure ‘Ready Player One’ or even ‘The Matrix,’ the concept of ‘virtual reality’ has been around for decades. A frequent tool for science-fiction works, as it was an idea too ahead of the technology of it’s time. Numerous efforts were made to market the idea in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but the technology to make it work was simply not there. That is, until recently. With the Oculus Rift, by ‘Oculus VR’ (as well as numerous competitors) virtual reality is making one final push into the public consciousness, and this time, it’s here to stay.
However, before it hits the market, there are a few kinks to figure out first. Latency and frame rate are two of the biggest, and most important variables in ensuring an immersive VR experience. Latency refers to the time difference between implied movement and visual movement inside the VR. Basically, when you move your head, does everything inside the simulation move at around the same time? If not, as was the case in past models, motion sickness can occur. Frame rate is also paramount in making sure that your nervous system doesn’t get bewildered and cause sickness during a VR session, which is one of the steepest mountains to climb in the race to get a fun and accessible VR product to consumers.
A lot of what I learned about VR, from first-hand experience, to the future of it, as spoken by pioneering engineers in the field of software and hardware, was at PAX South earlier this year. It was the most interesting and thought-provoking panel I caught over the weekend, titled ‘Virtual Reality: A Paradigm Shift for Gaming.’ The panel was made up of an intriguing cast of characters; some shy but intellectual, some almost abrasively passionate about where they thought the future of VR was headed, and one quirky Austin hippy-type hoping to spread love and peace in the virtual world. Of course, the one engineer from Oculus received a lot of the focus when it came time for questions, as they had just recently been bought by Facebook for two billion dollars; a resounding vote of trust and confidence in the future of the company, as well as the product.
Among talking about their favorite VR experiences to date, (ranging from terrifying horror simulations to sexual experiences) the most interesting stuff came when talking about the future. Not only did the panelists unanimously agree that eventually all or most gaming experiences would be in the virtual world, but that most forms of media and entertainment would as well. However, entertainment isn’t the only thing they theorized VR could be used for. Research has already shown that virtual reality has physiological effects on the human body. The example one panelist gave, is that a virtual environment on a cold, snow-covered mountain was created. On the mountain, multiple users could run around and throw snowballs at each other. The simulation was made for third-degree burn victims who suffered from chronic pain, and it was said to be the best pain-relief they had tried to date.
At the end of the day, all of this is talk and hearsay until you actually try it, and I was lucky enough to try the Oculus Rift at PAX South. After finding out there were a couple of VR booths on the expo floor, I made a beeline for them on the first day. After waiting in line for about half an hour to play ‘Elite Dangerous,’ a space flight simulator designed with the Oculus in mind, I finally got a swing at it. After about 10 minutes, I didn’t want it to be over. I had heard how enveloping and immersive the Oculus, and the next wave of VR can be, but I was completely blown away. I felt like I was a starship pilot, doing impressive flips and shooting down enemies like my life depended on it. It’s akin to what I imagine people felt over 100 years ago, looking at the first ‘moving pictures’ and ducking when a train came barreling towards them onscreen. I can promise you this: the next wave of gaming, entertainment, and much more is here, and it’s going to change everything.