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Oculus Rift, Sony's Morpheus, and the Future of Virtual Reality

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Oculus Rift Mockup
Credit: Oculus VR

If you are in any way part of the nerdsphere, then undoubtedly you've seen, read about, or at least heard someone speak about the upcoming the upcoming virtual reality (VR) gadgets. It all started when the Oculus Rift made its presence on Kickstarter, eventually drawing in $2.5 million - ten times the initially requested amount. As the product exploded all over tech and gaming blogs and magazines, it became evidently clear that a strong consumer interest in VR exists.

The concept of VR is nothing new. Nintendo released Virtual Boy in 1995, but the product was an utter failure due to the lack of processing power and display technology available at the time. Now, as we approach the world of mass-produced 4K smartphone screens and graphics cards capable of rendering games which make Skyrim look like it's built from cardboard, a decent VR experience is much more within arm's reach. I myself tried on a first-generation Oculus Rift developer's kit at a neuroscience conference in 2013 and was very impressed with the results. Many gaming applications are easy to imagine; the first wave of successful games will likely be the most obvious to implement; flying simulators (such as Star Citizen) lend themselves to a fairly simple porting job since looking around the flight cabin is the only necessary thing which the gamer needs to do. Flight controls are easily mapped to a keyboard or gamepad, and a game where you're sitting in a chair while pretending to sit in a chair is easier for immersion than one when you're jumping from tree to tree - the only thing that changes is the look of your surroundings, and that's what VR is perfect for.

Exercise games, if implemented correctly, will also see a benefit from virtual reality. No one likes an exercise bike, but the one thing that makes it horrible - its stationary nature - is the best thing for VR implementation. Assuming a sweat-proof VR headset is released, you can be biking through beautiful jungles, egyptian pyramids, and bustling cities. VR can change the goal of someone on a Stairmaster (which, from seeing people on Stairmasters, I can only guess is suicide) to climbing to the top mount everest. Of course this is virtual reality we're talking about, so the environments are limitless - you can bike through the ocean trenches, or on the moon while trying to escape flesh-eating nazi zombies which have somehow managed to survive in the vacuum of space. In space, no one can hear you hail. You can use that tagline. That's a freebie.

Eventually, developed VR technology will be paired with live video streaming to create believable augmented reality (AR). Unlike VR, AR appends digital information onto your real-world surroundings; think the HUD display the Terminator sported. In its simplest form, AR is essentially what Google's Glass is trying to accomplish. Yes, will be able to walk around, door to door, checking whether the residents are John or Sarah Connor. Booooring. If the invention of radio, telephones, TV, and the internet has taught us anything, it's that we all love to figure out new ways to communicate. That's where AR gets awesome. Imagine you're sitting on you couch in Phoenix, AZ (why?), and your best friend has just cracked open a beer at his place in Shanghai. With a space-sensing camera pointed at him, you can slip on your AR goggles and viola!, your friend is now sitting on the chair opposite you. More of your friends join in, and suddenly your physically empty living room is filled with your old college friends, toasting to each other, sharing stories, and having a few drinks. This may seem far-fetched, but the hardware to make this happen already exists - the necessary step is software development and social marketing. Facebook's acquisition of Oculus Rift suddenly makes a lot more sense.

Technophobes always argue about the importance of "real" personal connections, but in truth, the emergence of emails, texting, snapchatting, twitter, and facebook has brought us all much closer together. Imagine the moments you'd miss out on in your friends lives if you didn't stay in touch on the web? Overshared baby pictures get a harsh rap, but they keep you informed about the one thing your friends care about more than anything in the world. Ultimately, these tools allow us to spend more, not less, time with each other. VR and AR will allow us to create new opportunities to communicate by filling a niche in circumstances where technology is either currently too undeveloped or awkward. It's rude to text during dinner, and Skyping while eating is simply gross to many people since they feel the need to constantly stare at the other person on the screen. AR will allow a family to eat dinner together even if a parent is away on business.

There are many other ways which VR will change our lives. Doctors seeing faraway patients? Check. Better drone and tank piloting? Already in the works. Honestly, if you're not excited about virtual reality, then you stopped reading this article at the title so why am I addressing you..?



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