Time to strap in and see the light

By Kadhim Shubber

Decades after a virtual reality's potential was discussed, its moment has finally arrived, reports Kadhim Shubber.

Google's Cardboard virtual reality headset. Photo / Techcrunch.com
Google's Cardboard virtual reality headset. Photo / Techcrunch.com

My body is in my newspaper's offices in London, but my mind is in another world entirely. Strapped to my head is the Google Cardboard virtual reality headset. Assembled from a handful of simple components, the cardboard contraption has whisked me away into a peaceful forest with red, orange and brown trees.

I am completely alone, except for a grey animated rat chasing after a large, orange hat. I turn my head to watch as a gust of wind blows the hat and can't help but stumble after the rodent, arms outstretched like a toddler taking its first steps.

I look away and as I gaze upwards, the Samsung S4 smartphone in the headset detects my motion and the field of view moves with me. The forest canopy is captivating. When I return to the rat, he is where I left him - the storyline effectively paused when my attention was elsewhere. Eventually, the rat and his hat are reunited and I'm suddenly back in the real world. I am intensely aware that the bridge of my nose is being assaulted by the hard edges of the headset.

Windy Day is just one of the apps for Google Cardboard, together with Google Street View and Google Earth, but is certainly its most charming. Google's do-it-yourself virtual reality (VR) headset is designed to give the public a taste of the immersive possibilities of the virtual world for around 50 ($99) - if you have access to an Android smartphone and can find some cheap glass lenses.

But it's merely the crest of a growing wave of excitement about virtual reality, most famously led by Oculus VR, the company behind the Oculus Rift headset, purchased this year by Facebook for US$2 billion ($2.34 billion). This is virtual reality's moment in the limelight; it's now time for the technology to deliver.

The early 90s saw a similar amount of excitement about the possibilities of VR. It soon became apparent the technology wasn't ready. Virtual reality was a nice idea, but little more than that.

This time around it's different, says Professor Albert Rizzo, director of medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies.

"It's 1994 all over again. It's the same thing. But this time it's real," he tells me.

Rizzo leads a team looking at the use of virtual reality environments in everything from classrooms for children with attention deficit disorder to exposure therapy for war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Advances in graphics, computing power and interface devices such as the Nintendo Wii or Microsoft Kinect have opened the door to a new level of sophistication of virtual reality, he says. Most important, though, has been the continuing drop in the cost of virtual reality technology.

"Right now, a headset is US$2000. If you could replace that with a US$350 headset [such as the Oculus Rift] and have that be better, then you're golden - that's the direction we're heading," says Rizzo, in whose lab the inventor of Oculus Rift, Palmer Luckey, worked before launching the headset.

Accompanying the improvement in off-the-shelf commercial technology has been a boom in military interest in virtual reality. Put simply, without the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, virtual reality wouldn't be where it is today.

"The urgency of war required novel solutions," says Rizzo, noting that tens of millions of dollars of US military funding has "fed the scientists in my lab over the last few years". The reason for that funding is simple: virtual reality offers a means of rehabilitating war veterans effectively yet cheaply.

One method being pioneered by Rizzo involves taking a veteran through a traumatic incident by immersing them in a recreation of that incident in a virtual world. Clinical trials of the method are still continuing, but "so far all the data have been promising and positive", he says.

Just as virtual reality is being used to help soldiers reintegrate into society after returning from war, it is also being used to train them to fight in the first place.

Britain's Ministry of Defence is investigating how virtual reality technology can be used to give the army an edge in the field. Andrew Poulter leads the research and says virtual reality training has a number of advantages over traditional training in the field.

Take, for example, training soldiers driving in a convoy how to respond to an ambush or an improvised explosive device attack. Recreating that experience in the field repeatedly requires a significant amount of time and resources. "In a simulation, you can reset back to the beginning and go straight away again," says Poulter. Indeed, research published in 2008, looking at US, Canadian and British forces, showed soldiers seemed to be better prepared for combat when they had been trained in a virtual reality environment as well as in the field.

But Poulter is somewhat downbeat about the advantage immersive headsets have over simple desktop monitors, keyboards and mouses. "There's very little done with headsets," says Poulter, for the simple reason that a headset can also prevent the soldiers from performing simple tasks such as taking notes or operating a radio.

In truth, VR headset technology still has several failings.

The display resolution of the headsets is still far behind what can be achieved with digital monitors. Nausea is another issue; Oculus Rift, users, including chief executive Brendan Iribe, have reported feeling sick after using the headset, an issue the company says it's working to fix.

One sceptic of headset technology is Professor Robert Stone from the University of Birmingham, who has worked on VR projects with everyone from local heritage sites to hospitals to the Ministry of Defence.

"I've been doing this for 27 years and we always get the question 'What is the killer application for virtual reality?'. To be honest, at the moment there isn't one because the technology is letting the side down a bit," he says.

For him, the alternative to headsets - large, high-definition monitors - is a much better means of involving a person in a task or game. Furthermore, he says, VR headsets can be actively harmful to the goal of treating patients, distancing the patient from their doctor or nurse.


Virtual reality headsets are exciting the gaming industry, which hopes to have them on the mainstream market by Christmas 2015. Photo / Thinkstock


In the gaming industry, you find little of Stone's pessimism about VR headsets. The Oculus Rift should go on sale in 2015, Sony is developing its own headset, the Morpheus, and several other companies are trying to get in on the game.

Developers are taking note. In 2013, British company nDreams began working almost exclusively on games designed to be played with VR headsets.

The chief executive of nDreams, Patrick O'Luanaigh, is optimistic about the future of headset technology, describing the terrifyingly real experience of playing space horror game Alien Isolation on the Oculus Rift.

"When the alien came for me, I ripped the headset off in fear because it's so scary. That's the sort of reaction I've certainly never had with a video game."

He estimates that by Christmas next year, VR headsets will have finally hit the mainstream consumer market in a significant way. And once people start using them, they'll realise why the experience is "so special".

After only an hour with Google's Cardboard headset, a low-budget and limited VR experience, it's hard to disagree.

- Observer

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