Occulus Rift is another one of those technologies I simply can’t say enough about. Virtual reality or VR has been a tripodal technology for the last two decades, staggering onwards as it struggles to find its place in gaming. So what is it about Occulus Rift as a virtual technology that is breathing new life into VR?
Rift is as I have chosen to call it due to its disruptive effects is a head-mounted display headset designed for immersive gaming. This means that it’s a contraption that you strap to your head to deliver a realistic virtual experience by looking through two lenses through which parallel images are distorted and projected. In principle the ocular experience of the Rift is similar to that of old stereoscopes. The kind you’d hold up to your eyes as a kid to see banal images of leaping ponies. To amuse yourself have a gander at one of the earliest attempts of the VR movement, The Sword Damocles.
As I alluded to earlier, Rift is a new product in a long line of VR head-mounted displays (HMD). Until now the most successful was probably Forte’s VFX-1 HDM that came out in the 90s. Most of the VR technologies never hit the shores of Namibia in the same way MS Flight Simulator joysticks and Golden China consoles did. Fortunately we didn’t miss out on much as earlier VR technologies failed in their native markets because they were too expensive, badly designed or posed as serious health risk in the same way people are prone to unintentional self-harm during a hallucinogenic trip.
Let’s avoid the technical brilliance that has made Rift a success and instead focus on the practicalities that are essentials for this kind of fun game design. The rift not much unlike its predecessors is svelte and weighs little despite its bulky appearance (370g). I had the pleasure of trying out an early prototype at a snowboarding expo and the headset doesn’t cause any more discomfort than you would experience wearing a hat. The thing that really sets it apart is low latency. The visual response to your head movements is almost instantaneous. Rift’s other compelling feature is its price. This is the most affordable and accessible advanced VR technology has ever been. The Rift is currently fetching for U$300 although I’d probably wait for a more consumer friendly version if I were you.
Looking at the winning factors of Rift you will realize that it’s not so much the features of the Rift that have made it a success but the fact that world has never been this ready for VR. There has been a convergence of virtual technology design and growing hobbyist\hacker subculture to go with it. That and the fact that software, hardware processing power and information are so readily available is why the Rift is our new light in the dark. VR is back in the hands of the gamers. I think just about everyone else abandoned VR while Palmer Luckey slaved away into the night. By the time people realized the implications of this technology and the temporal ripeness of the technology ecosystem, it was already too late. Luckey had emerged from his lair with the eyes of the future.
Occulus has made its SDK (free) and dev kit (to buy) publicly available which means slews of hackers are going to tinker with it the same way they tinkered with Kinect. Although Rift is the sole contender in the VR race right now, the scale of its success will largely depend on how much the gaming development community want to include it as part of the normal gaming experience. It will also hinge on the extent gaming interfaces are willing to compliment the Rift. So far Valve has committed to adopting Rift for Team Fortress 2, Portal and Half Life 2. I myself would delight at the chance to take a virtual trip around the world of Skyrim or the lush jungles of Far Cry 3. Rift or VR is not without detractors, head mounted displays have received their fair share of flak, watch this panel of VC entrepreneurs tear Virtuix’s Omni treadmill a new one on Shark Tank.
There are physiological concerns that come with using Rift. Motion sickness and other adverse reactions need to be considered before Rift is rolled out to the masses. I can already hear the cacophony of angry mothers and girlfriends (or boyfriends) complaining about how the Rift trivialises the normal human experience. As exciting as the Rift might sound, I think locally we will see the same meagre penetration as Kinect. It will be a niche product for the rich and really techie before the kwaitos and the FIFA jocks jump on the bandwagon