In 1992 we were thrilled, and a little horrified, when we first saw what virtual reality could be like in the science fiction horror film The Lawnmower Man, then in 1999 our minds were blown when we watched the Matrix and saw the possibilities dreamed up for virtual reality by the Wachowski brothers. We saw air traffic controllers in Zion guide ships remotely and envied Neo as he explored a virtual world. We were hooked on the idea and couldn’t wait for the future to arrive when we were sure that all video games would be played in immersive worlds, movies would be interactive, and virtual reality would take the danger out of the toughest jobs. The futures seems to be here, but it’s not exactly what we expected with prices that are largely prohibitive or equipment that’s only as good as your Smartphone.
Virtual reality is a term that is thrown around a lot in science fiction and fantasy but it’s really just using computer technology and software to mimic the effect of a three-dimensional world where you can interact with objects that have a sense of spatial presence. In other words, it feels like you’re really there. The possible benefits of virtual reality are numerous and can be applied to training for dangerous police procedures, flying an airplane, or even immersing athletes in realistic training situations. Of course it can also be used for video games, and for us that’s one of the most exciting concepts of them all.
Oculus vs HTC
New technology is always expensive and the latest headsets like the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vine will set you back around an estimated $1500USD by the time you’re done. Both are headsets that fit over the eyes, presenting a double set of images that immerse you in the experience. Look up, down, left or right, and you’ll be able to view the virtual world from every angle. Various apps for the Rift allow you to take tours through the Vatican, fly a jet, ride a rollercoaster, and play some very cool games. And of course there are accessories like handsets to submerge yourself even further into games and even Oculus ready computers are set to be released for 2016, allowing you to explore virtual realities with greater detail and freedom. It’s not quite what we had pictured, because while the headsets will allow you some freedom of movement, they still won’t allow you to move your hand to physically pick up an item, severely limiting certain types of game play and effectiveness.
For those that can’t afford to splurge on the Rift then Google Cardboard at around $30USD, or one of the no name versions, may be what you’re looking for. This simple cardboard box holds your Smartphone and works with numerous available apps to create an experience similar to the Oculus Rift. And while the price is certainly exponentially lower, so is the quality. Depending completely on how good your Smartphone is, your experience will be less immersive than that of the Oculus or HTC versions. And while there are plenty of free apps available which will allow you to explore a wide variety of virtual reality scenarios, this cheaper version will likely leave users wanting more.
So perhaps we haven’t come as far as we’d like with virtual reality. It’s not fully immersive and we won’t be using virtual reality any time soon to complete actual labour, but it’s closer than ever before. Until then we’ll probably just stick with the cardboard until prices come down or until we can dive head first into a full on scene helping Neo fight off a thousand Agent Smiths in the Matrix.