Column: Sticking your face into the future

Column: Sticking your face into the future

Column: Sticking your face into the future
March 27
00:57 2014

James Rambin // Contributing Writer

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]redicting the future is a great way to disappoint people who haven’t been born yet. Every year for the last half-century, some “expert” says we’re only 15 or 20 years away from the mind-blowing technological leaps that would make the world a better place — fusion power plants, artificially intelligent computers, a slam-dunk cure for cancer or nearly anything shiny you saw on “The Jetsons” — and we’re still coming up short.

That’s why it’s kind of refreshing to see social networking juggernaut Facebook taking a different approach by announcing the purchase of startup virtual reality developer Oculus VR on Monday — instead of predicting the future, the company is trying to create it, and it’s willing to spend $2 billion for the privilege. Did you forget that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was insanely loaded? There’s your reminder.

So what do you get for all that scratch? The sole product currently being developed by Oculus VR is called the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality gaming headset that started life as a pie-in-the-sky crowdfunding project on Kickstarter.com before catching the attention of investors in the gaming industry, including John Carmack, lead programmer of the wildly popular computer game series “Doom.”

At first glance, it looks something like an oversized scuba mask with a few extra wires. The device is worn on the face, and when plugged into a desktop computer, functions as a wearable display that beams images to two separate tiny LCD screens, one in front of each eye. The two screens overlap with each other slightly, replicating the experience of real human vision and creating the illusion of depth in a process called stereoscopy.

It’s basically the same effect you’d get from seeing a 3D movie, but the device also includes a built-in gyroscopic accelerometer that tracks the wearer’s head movement in real time. This means that as the user moves their head in any direction, the headset instantly moves the view onscreen to match — providing the ability to peer around a virtual world in all directions without so much as touching a button.

The experience feels a bit like an old model of the holodeck of “Star Trek” fame, except you’re still forced to sit or stand still while using the device instead of walking around as you please. Still, it’s definitely possible to get motion sickness — which says something about how well the Oculus Rift seems to work.

The device, which is still currently in the testing phase, is already compatible with about 30 computer games, and many more are expected to release before a version of the headset is released on the open market.

But we still haven’t answered the question of why Facebook cares enough about this tech to drop a gigantic cash bomb in Oculus VR’s lap. It doesn’t seem like Zuckerberg’s lost his mind yet, so there’s no way this thing is just for games. The big man himself gave us a hint during a conference call to investors after Facebook announced the acquisition:

“Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures,” he said. “Oculus has the potential to be the most social platform ever.”

Read between the lines and this could mean huge things. Some of the ideas already floating around include virtual versions of online retailers like Amazon.com, giving users the ability to examine products up close and maybe even try on clothes to see how they look on a virtual body. Or how about a photorealistic virtual tour of your favorite art museum?

Certainly the technology at least has the potential to make even a simple webcam chat into a strangely intimate experience — the closest you could get to another person without actually standing next to them.

But while all of these ideas are undoubtedly super duper cool, none of the proposals for what Facebook might do with their $2 billion baby have convinced us that the device will really change the world.

Until Zuckerberg can bring food to starving orphans or fight terrorists with virtual reality, we’ll have to settle on calling the Oculus Rift a novelty with potential somewhere down the road.

And hey, just because you’re not convinced every new piece of tech is going to solve the world’s problems doesn’t mean you’re a cynic — after all the times we’ve been lied to about the “amazing future” just barely around the corner, hedging your bets might not be such a bad idea.

Feature photo: Woman enjoys the Oculus VR. Photo courtesy of William Wei, Business Insider

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