Virtual reality just got real: Could the Oculus Rift headset change the way we play, work and learn?

Cyrus Nemati tries out the headset that has far-reaching implications beyond the world of video gaming

Virtual reality has a come a long way since the 1990s, the heady days of Lawnmower Man and epic battles with evil triangles and squares. But with the arrival of the Oculus Rift headset, VR is poised to change the way we play, work and learn. That may sound like hyperbole, but I assure you that it's entirely justified.

The Oculus Rift is a consumer-focused virtual-reality headset that initially got going on Kickstarter in August 2013, where it asked for $250,000 (£150,000) but earned nearly $2.5m in backing. Since then, it's picked up loads more venture capital (about $91m in total) to produce its mass-market product, due sometime in 2014 at a target price of about $300. It's fair to say that it's earned a few believers with deep pockets already.

I got to try out the Rift a few months ago. I didn't have a choice in the demo I played, so I was stuck riding in a little yellow race car.

I have always hated race cars– they just seem like death pageantry. But it was that or nothing, so I settled into my seat and waited for the race to begin. And when it did, I turned my head and saw the world flying by. As I approached 120mph, I experienced slight vertigo, a feeling of pulling in my chest. Leaning my head out of the side of my car and watching the wheels spin made my eyes reel, and I could almost feel the wind in my hair. With unrestricted field of view, I felt like I was there.

I asked the Oculus Rift representative whether I could crash the car, half-afraid, half-hoping that she would say yes. The answer turned out to be no. Regardless, when the race was over, I was a believer in the future of virtual reality.

The prospects for video games are obviously very exciting, but what if I'd rappelled into an active volcano? What if I'd taken a trip to Mars? This is the real promise of virtual reality: the rekindling of the human sense of adventure. Virtual reality makes possible explorations we never dared to embark upon. We can voyage to the bottom of the sea by way of an underwater drone with a 360-degree camera, playing around with gulper eels and anglerfish, along with all the other alien species we haven't discovered yet. The video feed could be open to everyone, so anyone with a Rift could explore the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

We could send out space probes and bring the vastness of the cosmos to the masses, a privilege usually given to a lucky few. Imagine strapping into your virtual reality helmet and turning around to see the Earth growing smaller in the distance. Perhaps we could orbit the moons of Jupiter many years from now. This would inspire such wanderlust that it could jump-start the US space programmes, whose ambitions America has apparently ceded to, oh yes, the rest of the world.

There's exploration to do here in the mundane world, too. Surgery simulators are just a few years away, and medical students or even hobbyists (not murderers, one would hope) could poke and prod to their heart's desire. In virtual reality, doctors can attempt new techniques, and failure won't be followed by lawyers.

The Art Vandelays of the world can try their hand at architecture, with principles of physics firmly in place, and see just how sound their structures are. Minecraft has already signed on to be a Rift title, but that's just one example of the sorts of games that will help children explore their creative sides in a principled way, certainly more so than if they were shooting bears in Oregon Trail.

In less academic pursuits, cinema could be brought into the fourth dimension. 3-D is a cute gimmick, but The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in 3-D – due out in 2014 – is not exactly pioneering cinema. Think instead about a Sherlock film in which you have 360-degree vision of the set. You'd have everything in your field of view that the great detective has, and might be able to solve the mystery before he does. And what self-respecting geek wouldn't want to be in Middle-Earth? There are far more artsy applications, I'm sure, but I'm more of a Dumb and Dumber guy.

What the Oculus Rift is going to bring to the masses is the ability to do things because we can. "Impossible", "unsafe" or "ridiculous" will be the bywords of the lazy or the boring. There's no reason not to jump off a cliff, so we'll jump off cliffs. Gravity and physics say you can't ride an ant, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-style, but who is going to listen to gravity and physics when you can ride an ant, preferably while wearing a loincloth and carrying an axe, with heavy-metal music in the background? How many times have you watched a nature documentary and wanted to kick a lion's jerk face while he's attacking a poor little dik-dik? Well, try it, and see what happens.

The Oculus Rift offers the wearer a breath-taking experience The Oculus Rift offers the wearer a breath-taking experience

We can be much more ridiculous than that. There's nothing stopping us from becoming elephants, feeling our own immensity and weight, and seeing how hard it is to hide from a poacher (unless we choose to stomp said poacher into a fine paste suitable for sandwiches). Magic will no longer be the domain of wizards when anyone can wield the flame of Anor. It is in these ridiculous activities that we might free our minds to conceive new ideas.

These are activities that anyone can take part in. As in the 1995 virtual-reality classic Strange Days, the Rift could let someone in a wheelchair run along a beach. Being bedridden doesn't mean you can't fly to unexplored planets in a spaceship of your own making. Being 90 doesn't mean you can't ride a roller-coaster.

With such wondrous experiences available, we can only expect – as Strange Days warns – that some people will fall into virtual worlds a little too deeply at the expense of actual life. It's happened before with games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft, but virtual reality has a more instant appeal once you try it, especially when there's a lot more to do than viciously swing a sword at some poor orc for hours on end.

For most, though, virtual reality won't be the only reality, at least not in the foreseeable future. There are already lots of Oculus Rift experiences available, and many more planned. This is the beginning of something very special.

This article appeared on Slate.com

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    .Net/ C# Developer/ Analyst Programmer - West London

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .NET/ C# .Pr...

    Graduate / Trainee Recruitment Consultant - IT

    £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: Orgtel are seeking Graduate Trainee Re...

    Content Manager - Central London

    £35000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Content Manager - Central...

    Java Developer

    £45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: JAVA DEVELO...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz