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

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
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

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Developer - HTML, CSS, Javascript

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Application Developer - ...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?