The Oculus Rift has revitalized conversation on virtual reality and its place among the technology community. Most of the attention given to the Oculus Rift device was a result of Facebook’s purchase of the developing company in 2014. Since then, founder Palmer Luckey and Mark Zuckerberg have been touting the potential uses of an immersive virtual reality experience beyond novelty gaming applications. They’ve even gone so far as to suggest that virtual reality will go on to become a more meaningful platform for social interactions, making the abstract relationships of social media more concrete.
Potential Applications of the Oculus Rift
There are some grand ambitions for the application of a virtual reality headset. Part of the reason why virtual reality has never caught on the many times it was introduced (in the 70s, 80s, and 90s) is because there is no mainstream demand for such a niche tech product. There have never been many people willing to strap a screen to their face for a “richer” experience than reality can provide.
Zuckerberg has hinted at some future ideas that may attract more mainstream users. He imagines using virtual reality to provide people with courtside seats at their favorite sporting event, consulting face-to-face with a virtual doctor, or attending an online class beside many other students. In the context of social media, he envisions an online hang-out where users can meet in virtual reality in a setting of their choosing like the Grand Canyon or the Eiffel Tower instead of a chat room.
These are only a few of the project’s most ambitious goals, but many of the early supporters who funded the Oculus Rift through a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter have bemoaned the departure from gaming-focused development. Some developers remain true to the vision of the gaming fan base. Companies like Cyberith are developing technology that will allow gamers to track their body movements and have them translated into running and walking motions through their virtual reality experience. Many game developers have already released virtual reality versions of their most popular games, with some titles such as Half-Life 2, Team Fortress 2, and Bioshock available for Oculus Rift users. Companies like Sony also have virtual reality platforms in development. There is optimistic buzz about the potentials of VR, but skeptics still have plenty of ammo against the fledgling technology of virtual reality.
Early Setbacks have Arrived
Sales of the Oculus Rift headset for consumer use are set to begin sometime in the summer of 2015. Before that time, there are significant barriers that must be overcome. One of the most problematic aspects of the immersive experience of virtual reality has been the physiological response by some users. After emerging from their 3-D virtual world, a significant portion of users experience intense motion sickness. Developers are trying to design games that are less visually-jarring and work closer with eye-tracking technology to counter these effects, but developers claim that it will just take some adjusting to no matter what.
Besides the physical discomfort of virtual reality, there is also a cultural discomfort. It has yet to be proven that mainstream consumers will have any interest in participating in virtual reality, let alone using it for everyday socialization. Luckey’s view on it runs parallel to supporters of the popular Second Life online game, where users can assume any virtual avatar to socialize: “You can have a very realistic way of interacting. The only difference is that you can be whoever you want to be instead of whatever cards you got dealt in real life…What if [Facebook] was truly engaging and immersive, rather than a filtered version of your real self?”
Some opponents claim that the solution to social media’s isolating effects will not be solved by a deeper immersion in cyberspace, but make them more extreme. Luckey’s assessment seems paradoxical in that it rejects the reality of an individual’s personal history in the hope of achieving a more “realistic” way of interacting. That seems like a difficult sell, but social media has already profoundly transformed the way people want to be viewed by others. There may be people that believe their idealized self-image offers more value to the world than their true selves, or Oculus VR may be overestimating the reach of its ideology. Either way, the market will soon decide whether virtual reality is ready to become a billion dollar industry.