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What's happening in Virtual Reality?

June 22, 2015

What's happening in Virtual Reality technology?

We’re entering an exciting time for Virtual Reality, where high-quality technology is available at the consumer level. The goal of VR technology is to immerse you into different worlds. Those worlds can be real or fantasy, or anything in between. The more immersed you feel in that virtual world, the better the experience.

In the context of VR, that immersion is called presence. The ultimate aim is for the user to have shifted their sense of reality, and feel physically present in the virtual experience. Michael Abrash, Chief Scientist at Oculus, described presence as the feeling of being teleported to another place, and pointed out that this powerful sensation is only possible with VR.

Here’s a snapshot of some of the VR technologies that we’re excited about exploring:

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Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift, a virtual-reality headset created by Oculus, is the technology that comes to mind for most people when talking about VR experiences. Oculus was acquired by Facebook for $2 billion last year, and has been progressing with its plan of making VR accessible as consumer technology. The consumer Oculus Rift is still in development, and is rumoured to be released sometime in 2015. Development kits are currently available to game and app developers, to build out the hardware add-ons and software available at launch.

Body-focused VR

One of the coolest hardware add-ons for Oculus Rift is Leap Motion, which tracks the user’s hands and represents them in the virtual environment, so no gaming controls are needed. Users are no longer simply looking at a virtual reality world, but can interact with it directly with their own hands. Oculus understands the importance of physical input and has purchased a  hand tracking company of their own.

Want full-body VR? While it won’t be commercially available until Spring, Cyberith’s sensor-equipped PrioVR wirelessly connects with your gaming system to provide full-body tracking and natural in-game movement.

VR on your smartphone

If you’re looking for something DIY and available now, you can convert your smartphone into a VR device using a folded cardboard viewer. Google Cardboard does just this, allowing people to experience apps in VR by building or buying a viewer for their phones. Initially, this concept was seen as a fun novelty. However, it represents a shift in the way VR technology is headed, making it more accessible to a wider market. Hardware that is ubiquitous, portable, and inexpensive is going to have a higher adoption rate.

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Companies such as DODOCase are creating an industry of high-quality cardboard viewers. The experience of these cardboard viewers is improving rapidly as the range of available apps increase: Try exploring immersive games, watching 3D concerts, and exploring new places.

The VR avatar

If you’re a fan of the TV show Arrested Development, then you’ll remember Larry Middleman acting as a surrogate for George Bluth, who was under house arrest. The surrogate wore a camera and microphone so George could see, hear, and influence events he could physically attend. Omnipresenz is trying to create this virtual experience by giving people helmet cams and allowing home viewers to watch and influence their actions, giving them the opportunity to experience and explore new places. The viewer can give instructions to go down a certain route or go into an interesting store that caught their eye, even buying items they want.

The creators of Omnipresenz aren’t simply aiming to make an alternative experience to tourism. The aim is to create an experience of presence in another person’s life. Not only are sights and sounds shared, but emotions, creating a deeper virtual experience than interacting with software.

VR camera technology

360-degree camera are one key piece of the puzzle that will push VR experiences forward once they reach mass adoption. Currently there are a few available, but none has been widely adopted yet—however, there are several consumer options in the pipeline.

360fly, which has raised $17 million in funding, was given approval by the FCC in November, 2014 and is currently taking pre-orders. Bublcam, a Kickstarter-launched 360-camera, is taking pre-orders and planning to start delivery in Q2 2015.

VR technology in a broader context

Virtual reality technology doesn’t have to be insular: It can be used to explore and understand the outer world, as in the Omnipresenz use case.

It can also bring new life to aging facilities. For instance, Barcelona’s found a new use for its old Olympic stadium—the city is opening a new theme park called Open Camp, where visitors can run virtual races against Usain Bolt, or try ski jumping in a wind tunnel, using VR technology to give visitors a sense of presence. The park is slated to open this year and is expected to bring in €53 million in annual revenues.

VR technology can also be used for business, the military, healthcare, education, and dozens of other applications. As app developers, we’ve gotten a close-up look at the many ways VR will influence our day to day reality, and the possibilities will take your breath away.

is a Yeti Alum. He takes pictures of people on couches, paints unflattering portraits of his coworkers, and gets excited about the future of human computer interaction. Follow Geoff on Twitter.

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