Oct 12, 2014
New Scientist on new virtual reality headset Oculus Rift
From New Scientist
The latest prototype of virtual reality headset Oculus Rift allows you to step right into the movies you watch and the games you play
AN OLD man sits across the fire from me, telling a story. An inky dome of star-flecked sky arcs overhead as his words mingle with the crackling of the flames. I am entranced.
This isn't really happening, but it feels as if it is. This is a program called Storyteller – Fireside Tales that runs on the latest version of the Oculus Rift headset, unveiled last month. The audiobook software harnesses the headset's virtual reality capabilities to deepen immersion in the story. (See also "Plot bots")
Fireside Tales is just one example of a new kind of entertainment that delivers convincing true-to-life experiences. Soon films will get a similar treatment.
Movie company 8i, based in Wellington, New Zealand, plans to make films specifically for Oculus Rift. These will be more immersive than just mimicking a real screen in virtual reality because viewers will be able to step inside and explore the movie while they are watching it.
"We are able to synthesise photorealistic views in real-time from positions and directions that were not directly captured," says Eugene d'Eon, chief scientist at 8i. "[Viewers] can not only look around a recorded experience, but also walk or fly. You can re-watch something you love from many different perspectives."
The latest generation of games for Oculus Rift are more innovative, too. Black Hat Oculus is a two-player, cooperative game designed by Mark Sullivan and Adalberto Garza, both graduates of MIT's Game Lab. One headset is for the spy, sneaking through guarded buildings on missions where detection means death. The other player is the overseer, with a God-like view of the world, warning the spy of hidden traps, guards and passageways.
Deep immersion is now possible because the latest Oculus Rift prototype – known as Crescent Bay – finally delivers full positional tracking. This means the images that you see in the headset move in sync with your own movements.
This is the key to unlocking the potential of virtual reality, says Hannes Kaufmann at the Technical University of Vienna in Austria. The headset's high-definition display and wraparound field of view are nice additions, he says, but they aren't essential.
The next step, says Kaufmann is to allow people to see their own virtual limbs, not just empty space, in the places where their brain expects them to be. That's why Beijing-based motion capture company Perception, which raised more than $500,000 on Kickstarter in September, is working on a full body suit that gathers body pose estimation and gives haptic feedback – a sense of touch – to the wearer. Software like Fireside Tales will then be able to take your body position into account.
In the future, humans will be able to direct live virtual experiences themselves, says Kaufmann. "Imagine you're meeting an alien in the virtual reality, and you want to shake hands. You could have a real person go in there and shake hands with you, but for you only the alien is present."
Oculus, which was bought by Facebook in July for $2 billion, has not yet announced when the headset will be available to buy.
This article appeared in print under the headline "Deep and meaningful"