It’s still not worth buying a high-end VR headset

Credit: Damian Maloney.

I put an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset on my head and I was teleported into the cramped command compartment of Apollo 11, circa July 1969, on my way to the Moon. Dressed in a white NASA spacesuit, I took off with two other astronauts, peering out of tiny windows as the Earth dwindled below us. My stomach lurched as we landed on the surface of the Moon, where I watched a computer-generated Neil Armstrong take his first steps, kicking up little clouds of dust and saying (via archival audio of the actual event) that it was even easier to get around than had been expected while running simulations on Earth.

The fiery descent to Earth was a bit harrowing, though obviously there was no real danger, and my shipmates looked like square-jawed, impassive-faced mannequins who never looked at me. Knowing that it is virtual reality and not a real situation does not prevent Apollo 11 VR, which costs 14.99 dollars (about 13 euros) in the online store of Oculus, be exciting, captivating and emotional. And that is why virtual reality, although it is still a novelty, should not be understood as a product solely intended for video games. It allows you to travel in time and go to the Moon. What other technology can transport us in such a way?

Video games represent a huge and obvious market for virtual reality. The players are willing tomake the important outlay associated with the latest software and hardware to satisfy your habits. In this case, the money goes to the Rift headset, which costs $599, or about €531, and relies on a powerful desktop computer (which is another $1,000, or about €887, give or take). Facebook-owned Oculus has long been hyping gaming as an app for VR, and when the Rift launched in late March, it had already 30 video games available in its small but growing store. The high number in this category made it much larger than any other.

Products studied

  • oculus rift
    599 dollars (about 531 euros)
    Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution
    By Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson
    HarperCollins, 2011
  • Apollo 11
    $14.99 (about 13 euros)
    VR experience
  • Grand Canyon
    $4.99 (about 4.42 euros)
    VR experience
  • altspacevr
    Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution
    By Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson
    HarperCollins, 2011

But, after spending weeks on the black, cloth-lined Rift helmet, I see that virtual reality is much more than just a platform for video games. These headsets make us feel totally transported (if only for a brief period) as we learn about new worlds and watch movies whose scenes change depending on where we look. Today, the number of impressive experiences is limited to a handful of video games, movies and other apps that allow users to explore virtual reality. But good applications are so fascinating that the technology will surely grow in content generation and experimentation.

virtual tours

In addition to traveling to the Moon, the Rift can be used to kayak down the Colorado River (USA) while observing the Grand Canyon, and tiny pellets of food are thrown at the fish. You can dive with sharks, sea turtles and other creatures At the same time, bubbles of rising exhalation appear from the point where the diving mask should be and you feel that tingling sensation that one experiences when submerging in the water, and the fear that something may be stalking you from behind.

For the next three years, such virtual tours will become much more common, according to the founding director of the Human Interactions Laboratory at Stanford University (USA), Jeremy Bailenson. His lab developed such an experience, the Crystal Reef, which allows the user to swim through areas of varying ocean acidity to explore the effects of carbon dioxide on underwater habitats. It debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in April, and Bailenson expects it to be available for HTC’s Rift and Vive headsets within a couple of months.

A great unknown is whether people will take virtual trips in groups, which will allow them to interact, or they will lose contact once their helmets are put on. The idea that VR can be social rather than a siled experience may be the main reason Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent $2 billion to acquire Oculus in 2014. At the time, Zuckerberg predicted that virtual reality’s ability to make one feel “really present” will allow users to “share unlimited spaces and experiences with their loved ones”.

Existing social interactions within virtual reality aren’t all that fun yet. A basic avatar can be used to talk to other people within the AltspaceVR virtual reality platform, as long as those other people have a Vive, Rift, or Gear VR, made by Samsung, that is operated in concert with a smartphone instead of a smartphone. a computer. In general, within AltspaceVR I was mainly dedicated to walk up to other users’ avatars to comment on how weird everything looked.

Image: There’s still not much you can do with an Oculus Rift, but these ‘apps’ point to the power of the technology. Credit: Immersive Entertainment, Picselica and AltspaceVR.

But it is not crazy to think that in the next few years we will use virtual reality to socializing or for some types of gatherings. The Oculus Toybox demo, which isn’t publicly available yet, provides a good idea of ​​how it might work. Once the user connects with another person remotely who is also wearing a headset, the two will be able to talk, move virtual objects and play ping-pong. It’s not mind blowing, users don’t really feel the virtual objects and they are represented by a blue bald head with a helmet and a pair of hands. But it does point the way to some social interactions that are more engaging than talking on the phone or having a video chat. The director of the Center for Research on Virtual Environments and Behaviors at the University of California at Santa Barbara (USA), Jim Blascovich, predicts that since humans are naturally social, we will want to use virtual reality to find new ways to connect.

room for improvement

For virtual reality to become really common and useful, it will need to improve several aspects. Technology still makes some users feel dizzy and nauseated. This tends to happen when the visual effects recorded by the user’s brain do not match the movements experienced by their body. Avoiding this will require improvements to both hardware and software, and VR content creators will need to avoid extreme virtual movements. It would also be possible that virtual reality is more suitable for experiences that do not exceed 20 minutes in length.

In addition, they will need better ways to control and interact with virtual reality instead of using conventional video game controllers, as the Rift currently does. Since they are not always intuitive, they spoil the illusion; even two-handed controllers like the ones that come with the Vive and the ones Oculus is launching this year still don’t work very well. Tracking the user’s head movements has improved a lot, but to give apps and video games a real boost, more advanced systems that can more reliably reproduce all kinds of body movements. And a lot of people probably won’t care until headset sizes are less bulky and can be used without having to plug into a bulky desktop computer.

Credit: ocean rift.

For now, don’t buy an Oculus Rift or any other high-end VR headset unless you are a tech fanatic. Aside from the Rift headset itself, you can’t run VR software well without an expensive, ultra-high-performance computer. If you have a mild curiosity about technology, There are much more affordable options., like Google Cardboard ($15, or about €13 from Google; works with a range of Android smartphones and iPhones) or Samsung Gear VR ($99.99, or about €89; requires a high-end Samsung smartphone ). In fact, there’s still not much you can do with a Rift: as of early June, there were just over 70 video games, apps, and other content available in the Oculus Store.

But it would be a mistake to discount the Rift and its entire species as mere technological trinkets. There are too many opportunities for virtual reality, and it’s just starting to take off.