Ever since Oculus Rift blazed past its Kickstarter goal in late 2012, the hype around VR technology has gone through the roof. Technology giants including Samsung, Microsoft, Google, and even Facebook are all trying to capitalize on this revolution by producing hardware packages to get their name in the game. Each company is trying to push its own headset with slight variations - Samsung’s Gear VR makes your phone the heart of its sleek hardware, Google’s Cardboard takes the DIY approach for any dev to use, and Facebook’s Oculus Rift strives to be on the leading edge of Virtual Reality technology. In the end, each company is going to produce a product that will give millions of developers and consumers access to a VR world. But how will these products compete in a market in which phones, computers, and gaming consoles are so pervasive already? The answer is immersion.
Phones, tablets, and televisions are big screens in front of you, but there can be so many things going on around them that can take your attention away from your movie, browsing, or other tasks. Emerging virtual reality technology immerses users in an environment by putting the screen around them - in every direction. Inside this virtual zone, you are completely involved and in control of what you’re doing. The difference is like watching a sports game on TV versus being in the stadium watching the game. At home you can’t control what’s on the screen; the neighbors might be mowing their lawn or the kids could be running around the TV and blocking the view. In the stadium, however, you’re in the action without distraction. Which is the more enjoyable, engaging experience? That’s what VR is intent on capturing from the comfort of your living room couch. There are so many possibilities with the magic you can create using a VR headset. Here’s a list of some common uses of VR technology, including some aspects that you may never have heard of or considered.
When you think of virtual reality, a new genre of gaming is the obvious winner. In fact, one could make a strong case that gaming is the driving factor behind the development of VR technology; after all, it’s the foundation of the Oculus Rift. Think about it from the perspective of a video-game-loving developer. How cool would it feel to create an environment in which gamers can actually be jumping on Goombas as Mario instead of watching him from the sidelines? Imagine the new era of horror games: You hear something on your left and as you slowly turn, you realize how terrified of ghosts you really are. Even for the non-gamer, this mind-bending experience is something that everybody has to try.
In addition to the immersive element of VR gaming, there’s another dimension to consider. Since your head movement essentially negates the need for portions of a controller, your hands, arms, and even body are open for use in more lifelike ways. One of the coolest demos out there is a pair of handheld controllers that track where they are, allowing you to use them as your hands in virtual space. Imagine playing as a lightsaber-wielding Jedi blocking blaster bolts and dueling against General Grievous. You have such fine-tuned accuracy with these controllers that you can even write your name in the ground with the lightsabers! Many other peripherals exist, but some are a little wacky or impractical for home use.
Simulation is used in many potentially dangerous industries to provide a safe environment for training. The best possible way to be ready for any real-life scenario is to experience it as closely as you can. Using VR technology, you can put someone into the cockpit of an airplane, behind the scalpel of a surgeon, or in the middle of a war-zone. These scenarios were hard, expensive, even impossible to simulate before the introduction of VR headsets and development platforms. Now, with the tools available, companies in these industries can start developing safer and more cost-effective solutions.
Digital tourism is another possible use of simulation that could allow anyone with a headset to walk through the Louvre, hike the Grand Canyon, and climb the steps of Machu Picchu — all in the same afternoon. As a recent college graduate, I’m constrained by money and time from traveling the world and could be for quite some time. But it’s entirely possible that I virtually will be able to go anywhere and everywhere I want when the technology is available. Google Maps is already a huge database of 360° images ready to be fed into a headset, so it’s not farfetched to think that high-resolution tours of landmarks could be in the offing one day.
360° video is a video that captures all around you - and most times above and below you as well. While this might not be the best format for big-screen productions, there are definitely some exhilarating moments captured in 360°. YouTube already supports 360° video playback scenarios in which you are scuba diving among turtles, in the middle of a zombie invasion, and jumping out of planes. There's so much freedom and satisfaction in the sensory perception of a 360° environment — taking in the sights and sounds the way they would be experienced naturally in real life. The best part about 360° video is its accessibility, allowing users to create and share their own videos. By using a special lens attached to your phone, it will even be possible for you to be in the midst of your friends during a Skype session.
The most widely applied version of 360° video is likely to come from amusement parks and theaters that design content specifically for their customers. Imagine going to Disneyland and, instead of sitting through the usual video attractions, putting on a pair of goggles and watching magical characters fly by or dinosaurs chase you. VR content has been released and has proven to be highly effective in engaging and immersing the wearer in the experience. With time and research, this cutting-edge media is sure to take off.
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