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

Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
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

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

    Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

    £50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

    Ashdown Group: Part time Network Support Analyst / Windows Systems Administrat

    £30 per hour: Ashdown Group: An industry leading and well established business...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'