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Virtual reality: Oculus Rift

Rob Lane asks if Facebook’s latest acquisition is a game-changer for the virtual reality industry.

Rob Lane asks if Facebook’s latest acquisition is a game-changer for virtual reality.

When the $2 billion Facebook deal to buy Oculus Rift was made public late afternoon on 25 March I was wearing my PR hat, gently encouraging journalists to attend the launch of the FLUX Innovation Lounge the following day. We already had very healthy attendance confirmations, but when the balloon went up on the Oculus purchase my iPhone exploded into life. All those who had previously said they were too busy to attend the launch were suddenly, miraculously available. The reason? We had an Oculus Rift alongside the other interactive tech.

So far, so predictable. After all, this was a huge global news story. What’s more interesting is that most of the journalists who were suddenly free to attend the launch were interested in OR for the same reasons that the previously confirmed-to-attend journos had been – which were, by and large, also the same reasons why Mark Zuckerberg had decided to fork out a gobsmacking $2 billion to own it. In other words, not necessarily gaming.

As Zuckerberg commented on – you’ve guessed it – Facebook, when the acquisition was announced: “This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life.”

Okay, very Facebook-speak, ‘sharing with friends’, yada yada, and of course he discusses gaming as well, but the key phrase here is ‘new communication platform’ with ‘experiences’ the key word. Indeed, Zuckerberg talks of making Oculus “a platform for many other experiences”, adding: “Imagine enjoying a court-side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face.”

So, clearly, as we’re all well aware, Oculus Rift is an exciting tool for the integration and experiential industries – for fun and practical applications – but what’s difficult to predict is just how important it will be a year from now. Zuckerberg certainly wouldn’t have splashed that much money if he wasn’t convinced OR would be more than a platform for gamers.

There have already been examples of Oculus Rift in non-gaming action reported in these pages and others, including a Peugeot 308 experiential tour (Arcstream AV), surgical training enhancement (MOVEO Foundation), viewing of museum artefacts (Cross Design Group) and the compatibility of Oculus Rift with Holovis’ RideView simulation app. But what else has OR been used for?

Scientists have been reportedly working with Oculus Rift to offer long-haul astronauts a simulated trip back to Earth, to break the monotony of space-time. Researchers at the Neukom Digital Arts Leadership and Innovation Lab in Computer Science (DALI) at Dartmouth College in Hanover, US, reckon that VR trips back home will help astronauts to feel more at ease.

And the BBC produced an immersive news broadcast ‘experiment’ in June, using 360º cameras to ‘stitch together’ footage from newsroom, editing gallery and newscaster. The broadcast was made available to members of the public at the time and is still available as a free download for OR development kit owners

We’ve only scraped the surface of what’s possible with OR, but it certainly sounds as if the industry shares Zuckerberg’s excitement that this is much more than just a gamer’s fantasy made (virtual) reality.

“Oculus needs to quickly demonstrate that virtual reality isn’t a gimmick and that it has real-world applications beyond the gaming community,” Imagination digital client director James Watson told me, adding that OR will be commercially successful provided it is used for specific tasks.

Linda Duggan, portfolio manager at Holovis, agrees – “Oculus Rift is not only applicable to the gaming industry but also the commercial and manufacturing sectors” – as does Steve Blyth, founder and managing director of Engage Production, who reckons VR will receive a boost: “The immersive and interactive potential for OR is only limited by our imaginations and it should push VR to the forefront of people’s thinking for interactive communication experiences.”

But it is Andy Millns, co-founder and creative director at Inition, who appears to be the most enthusiastic, identifying something approaching a paradigm shift as a result of OR: “The applications for the Rift and VR in general are endless, it’s as if we’ve been working with radio and someone’s just invented the TV.”

It isn’t difficult to envisage Zuckerberg putting all his financial muscle behind TV, had he been around during its 1920s gestation. If Oculus Rift has just a fraction of the impact of the goggle box, that $2 billion will have been a wise investment and you should all reap the rewards.