Why virtual reality is surprisingly not s***

Written By komlim puldel on Minggu, 28 September 2014 | 20.01

Stuart Kennedy explores virtual reality with the Oculus Rift headset

Experience being in an asteroid field. Source: Supplied

WE HAVE been promised a mind-blowing virtual reality experience for so long that it's hard to take the claims seriously anymore.

Of course 3D has come a long way since 1953 when people sat in cinemas with red-and-blue paper glasses and were amazed when a paddle ball popped out of the screen.

And who could forget James Cameron's 2009 film Avatar, which paved the way for more liberal use of 3D in movies with varying success.

But until now the experience has been confined to cinemas and you still feel like you are sitting there watching and not participating in what's going on.

So when my boyfriend came home with what I thought was the latest 3D gimmick, the much hyped Oculus Rift headset, I was sceptical.

But after trying it, I'm a convert. Even without hyper realistic graphics, I was surprised at how immersive using the Oculus Rift actually was.

Yes, you look silly but it's worth it. Picture: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong Source: AAP

Firstly, a disclaimer, I'm no gaming expert. I would say my experience mostly consists of games of Mario Kart with my sisters circa 1997 but I have tried some new releases and I know that graphics have improved dramatically.

I tried the Oculus Rift DK2 and a program called Sightline: The Chair, which is designed to showcase the possibilities of the headset. It uses 3D graphics but is much more interactive.

The virtual reality headset was developed after its creators raised more than $2 million from crowd-funding in 2012, and since then they have released prototypes so game developers can be part of the design process.

Entering the virtual reality world means there are limitless possibilities. Source: Supplied

The headset itself feels quite heavy when you are wearing it but you don't notice it much once the program starts. It's designed to be plugged into your home computer and my experience was greatly enhanced by the use of some decent headphones.

Sightline: The Chair did not need any extra controls as the idea was to sit in a swivel chair (so you can take advantage of the 360 degree view - trust me you'll want to do this) and watch the world change around you. When you move your head, the landscape changes too, so you really feel as if you are exploring a surreal new world.

The graphics still look like a computer game version of reality but the sound and the fact that you control what you see makes you feel like you are actually in a game, which is quite a cool feeling. In a strange way, the virtual reality world seems like a legitimate world all of its own and it's quite exciting to think that in this place, anything is possible.

Sightline: The Chair is a fantastic way to get a taste of these possibilities as it features a series of scenes that merge from a peaceful field, which is quite relatable, into a rainy cityscape and at one stage turns into a weird spider web world. The transitions between each world are very subtle so seems quite natural.

The strange thing is, you know that the world is not real, it does not even look that real but it's hard not to actually react as if it is real.

Weird spider web world in Sightline: The Chair. Source: Supplied

At one stage I had to fight the urge to reach out and touch a large block that appeared next to me. I had to remind myself - it's not actually there.

One of the best scenes takes you into space where planets and asteroids whiz around you. It feels as if you are sitting alone on a chair floating through the galaxy and it is truly an amazing experience.

It feels real: Flying through the universe. Source: Supplied

After trying the Oculus Rift, I felt like I began to understand, for the first time, the potential that virtual reality technology offers and how much of a game changer it's going to be.

Designer Peter Gould, who purchased the kit that my boyfriend borrowed, said it was an exciting time for creative teams experimenting with the possibilities that the new technology offered.

Some even believe that one day it will be common for each individual to create their own virtual reality world and this will become a way for people to get to know each other, by experiencing each other's curated worlds.

"I'm certain it won't be long before virtual reality is commonplace in classrooms, boardrooms and homes so it's fun to be part of this early phase," Gould said. "The future looks very promising, especially if we can build compelling educational programs."

However, there's no question the technology requires more tweaks before it is ready for mass release.

While anyone is able to buy development kits for the Oculus Rift (the DV2 costs US$350) it is still in development phase and my boyfriend had to scour the internet for programs to play and spend time getting them to work the way they should.

Familiar one minute and surreal the next: The world of Oculus Rift. Source: Supplied

The experience can also leave you with a headache. I tried another program that positions you in a plane and the aim was to use a controller to fly through golden hoops suspended in the sky. Visually it looked amazing but I am terrible at manoeuvring and so my clumsy, jerky movements just gave me a bad headache after just a few minutes.

There was also a rollercoaster ride that I was not up to trying but which has got some funny reactions online and also a program where you can experience flying, which my boyfriend said was lots of fun.

For those who think that virtual reality is a gimmick that will never infiltrate our real lives, the Oculus Rift is a wakeup call. Facebook bought the company in July for more than $2 billion and it is getting closer to releasing a consumer product, recently releasing a new lighter device called Crescent Bay. There's no question that this is going to be the next big thing in entertainment. But hey, what would I know? I don't play computer games.


What I tried: The Oculus Rift Development Kit 2, cost US$350.

More information: http://www.oculus.com/

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