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

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
booksJK Rowling to publish new story set in wizard's world for Halloween
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites those Star Wars rumours
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

News
i100
Life and Style
tech

Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into conflicts
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'
film

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

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

    Senior Software Engineer - C#, VB.Net, ASP.Net - Kingston, Sur

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior Software Engineer - C#, VB.N...

    Business Focused Business Analyst - Finance and Procurement System Implementation

    £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reading are...

    Helpdesk Support Analyst - South West London - up to £22,000.

    £20000 - £22000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Support Analyst ...

    Datacentre Consultant (Infrastructure Consultant, HyperV) £45k

    £45000 per annum: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Datacentre Consultant (Datacentre,...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker