While its development models were publicly available for the greater part of the 2010s, the Oculus Rift officially became available on March 28, 2016. The virtual reality headset, which has benefited from a significant amount of hype, is intended primarily for use with video games.
Virtual Reality in the Past
As you might expect, the recent efforts made by Oculus do not mark the first attempt to create immersive virtual reality technology. The earliest of these predates the Digital Age and was called the Sensorama. Inventor Morton Heilig patented the Sensorama it in 1962, and, for up to four people, it simulated reality. This made use of not only a 3D motion picture, but also several sources that would elicit sensory reactions from the viewer, including smell, stereo sound, vibrations of the seat, and wind.
In the half-century after the Sensorama, there have been many other attempts to create virtual reality technology, even in gaming. In the early Nineties, Sega designed their own virtual reality headset as an input device for their games. The Sega VR was the first virtual reality headset that could track movement, and although it was planned for release on home consoles, it was only released as the Sega VR-1 arcade version in 1994.
After this, the industry had a peaked interest in virtual reality, inspiring Nintendo to create the Virtual Boy. The Nintendo Virtual Boy was released in 1995, and unlike other Nintendo home consoles, it did not require a television, instead having two screens within an eyepiece directly on the console, which was held up by legs to be placed on a table. While not actually virtual reality, the Virtual Boy offered a three-dimensional red stereoscopic display. Released in a period when most Nintendo consoles sold tens of millions of units, the Virtual Boy sold only 770,000. As a commercial and critical failure, the Virtual Boy has long faded into the depths of obscurity.
The Oculus Rift
Undoubtedly, technology has significantly advanced since the late Twentieth Century, which gives Oculus a major advantage that virtual reality development companies have lacked in the past. The Rift’s headset has a 1920 x 1080 HD resolution that delivers a 960 x 1080 display to each eye, with a refresh rate of 60 Hz and a 100-degree horizontal field of view. Oculus Audio SDK allows the use of Head-Related Transfer Function (HRTF) tech, which, combined with the Rift's head tracking through the positional tracker, creates a sense of true 3D audio spatialization.
Palmer Luckey, the founder and CEO of Oculus VR, has long been interested in the concept of virtual reality. After modifying retro game consoles as an after-school activity (he’s the founder and admin of ModRetro), Luckey partnered with the right people who were also interested in virtual reality technology. One of these was John Carmack, the co-founder of id Software and lead programmer of Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, and Quake. The company was officially founded in 2012, and after just a few days of an initial Kickstarter campaign, Oculus broke 1 million dollars. In 2014, they released their first development kit, which sold out at 65,000 units.
The Dev Kit 2 was a massive improvement over the less-refined Dev Kit 1, and was released later in the same year. Just one week after preorders began, Oculus VR was acquired by Facebook for $2 billion, a major leap for the company, but one that was met with significant criticism from those who admired the company’s “homegrown” nature.
The Oculus Rift uses virtual reality technology that was designed with an awareness of the shortcomings of both past VR tech and the Dev Kits. It serves as a combination of Luckey’s interests, having each unit come with an Xbox One controller to play 30 game titles as they are available with its launch.
Virtual Reality Standard
While the Rift was designed with technology that has been enhanced through current electronics standards and software standards, there is no standard for virtual reality headset technology. However, OSVR, Open Source Virtual Reality, is an upcoming virtual reality headset in development by Razer and Sensics that uses open source hardware and software. These two aspects are currently independent of each other, and anyone who can access them can update the technology. Creators of this product hope that it can enhance VR and standardize its software and hardware, but it will have to compete with the Rift.
The Future of Virtual Reality
The Oculus Rift, while being catered for gaming, has been eyed by many different companies as a potential opportunity as the next big thing. Social media could work on an entirely different level if it is a part of VR technology, and Second Life, an online virtual world, has already launched a beta version of its software on Oculus Rift headsets. The Rift launches with film and television applications, and could prove to be an interesting medium for commercial purposes.
In addition to the Oculus Rift and OSVR, there are several other VR headsets in development, such as Sony’s PlayStation VR and the inexpensive Google Cardboard. It seems that interest in virtual reality is at its greatest since the mid Nineties.
However, it is worth wondering whether all of this hype and excitement will pay off. Just because something is labeled as a major innovation in technology doesn’t necessarily mean that it will change the world. Take, for example, Google Glass, which lacked a purpose for the consumer to purchase it, leading to failure.
Despite the fact that the virtual reality craze has happened in the past, the Rift and other VR headsets are the closest thing we have today that virtually simulates reality. Because of its strong relationship with gaming, virtual reality might just have a place in our society. If it is to become widespread, VR will require standardization efforts to increase competiveness and enhance the industry. However, it is far too early to assume any of this. The passage of time in the real world will tell us the future of the virtual world.