Maybe you’re strolling around a Tuscan villa, where the sun is shining and the birds are chirping. Maybe you’re in a mysterious dark cavern, surrounded by glowing white orbs. You could even be on the biggest rollercoaster you’ve ever seen, flying above mountain cliffs or landing on the moon.
But take the headset off, and you quickly return to a typical classroom on the University of Maine campus, having just experienced what some are calling the next big thing in the tech world — the Oculus Rift. The Rift, a virtual reality headset made by Oculus VR, is poised to revolutionize everything from video games to military, aerospace and industrial training simulations.
The IMRC Center at UMaine is one of only a handful of facilities and individuals in Maine that currently possess the Rift. A consumer model will likely be available late 2014 or in 2015. Needless to say, it’s a far cry from Nintendo’s ill-fated mid-1990s Virtual Boy.
UMaine’s Rift device was purchased in order to facilitate the senior project of Ian Lusk and Lucas Richards, two new media majors creating a demo program for the Rift that combines virtual reality with interactive motion sensor technology.
There are a number of demo programs for the Rift, including putting the user underwater in a coral reef or in the midst of a horror movie setting. But Lusk and Richards are more focused on figuring out how the Rift works and adding their own spin to the technology.
“We were as new to all this technology as anyone. We’d never used any of it,” said Richards. “There are a lot of people out there working on different things for it, from sports applications to gaming to architects being able to design a house and then walk through it. It’s been fascinating to start figuring out how it works … and it’s been really, really fun.”
In the past month, the Oculus Rift has been in the news more than ever. Last week, the company was purchased by Facebook for $2 billion, and prior to that, Sony announced development of its own virtual reality headset called Morpheus.
The Rift, created by Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, was first released to developers in 2012, after a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $2.4 million. The Kickstarter promised a development kit, including a Rift prototype headset, to those who pledged $300 or more.
Ben Sawyer, founder of Digital Mill, a games consulting firm based in Portland, also has an Oculus Rift, one of the original prototype models. Luckey spoke at Sawyer’s Serious Games Summit at the Game Developer’s Conference last year.
“Unlike other headsets that have promised so much, this was the first time where I put one on and just went ‘wow,’” said Sawyer. “It’s not so much that you feel like you’re transported somewhere else, but more that you feel like the place you were before you put them on is now gone. … As far as first tech experiences go, it’s like the first time people saw color TV.”
As Sawyer said, when putting the headset on, there are essentially two super-fast mobile phone screens plastered in front of the eyes. With upcoming versions of the Rift, the processing speed of the whole setup will get even faster, making the images seen through the headset even more crisp and seamless.
Sawyer believes that at the very least, when the Oculus Rift hits the market, it will become a popular niche gaming platform, not unlike the Xbox Kinect. It has the potential, however, to become much more — especially with the massive financial boost Facebook has given the company.
“It’s gamers that will make this possible, because they’re the ones that will buy it and demand the technology get better,” said Sawyer. “Once that happens, and the technology gets faster and smaller and lighter and cheaper, you’ll see it can do other things. It can be applied therapeutically. It’s already being used by hospitals and the health industry. … Imagine being able to feel like you’re on a beach, while you’re in the dead of a Maine winter. That could have potential benefits to people’s general well-being.”
Before the Rift is even on the market, developers and coders are already tinkering with it.
Richards and Lusk’s project combines the immersive experience of the Rift with motion recognition, using Leap Motion, a device that tracks the movements of your hand and wrist. The program puts the user in an empty black space filled with glowing white orbs, and using the Leap, the user can grab the orbs, throw them, push them away, pull them closer or change the size.
“This kind of stuff, using your hand and fingers to control something, is used a lot in 2D, like on the touchscreen on your phone, but not as much in 3D, like we’re doing,” said Lusk.
Both Lusk and Richards trace their interest in the Rift back to that initial first experience.
“When I first put it on, the first thing that really went through my head was all the possibilities for this technology,” said Richards. “That first time is pretty amazing. I just thought, ‘You can do so much with this.’ It’s really exciting.”