Many of you may have awoken to Facebook feeds of nerds giving out angrily about the Facebook purchase of Oculus Rift. While many will write this off as another tech purchase similar to Whatsapp, there’s a reason why people are making such a fuss about Oculus; it has the potential to change the world in an even bigger way than the internet.
Virtual Reality has been around for nearly as long as video games themselves, but the public’s perception of what VR is and what it can be has been skewed by Hollywood and Science Fiction. When we talk of VR, people think of Tron and fluorescent retina singeing, of the Nintendo Virtual Boy, of headaches, of screens imposed just in front of the eyes. Even people who have used the prototype Oculus Rift may wonder how it’s any different to just playing a game on a screen.
In fact, VR has failed so many times that people are now less excited about the possibilities. However, for the last half decade a group of elite video games development alumni have been collaborating to force the issue, and it appears as though we’re finally at the point at which the tech for real VR is viable.
What the collaborators behind Oculus have discovered is that through science and technology, they can invoke a sensation called ‘Presence’. Presence is the most important consumer technology discovery since the internet.
Imagine you’re standing at the edge of a cliff. If you were to do so in real life, when you look down your body involuntarily reacts. You get butterflies in your stomach, and your brain prepares you for the possibility of peril. It increases adrenaline and heightens your sense of awareness. If you do this in a video game right now, you are simply moving the camera. You may be aware of the sense of scale in relative terms, but you are a subjective viewer; what is happening on screen has no implications, except for in the game itself.
Now imagine that when you have an Oculus headset on, and look down, you experience the exact same feelings as you would in real life. It is now entirely possible to achieve this effect, and Presence is slated to become a consumer technology within the next two years. Just think about that. In two years time, we will be able to craft our own realities and inhabit them. We can actually get inside the code we write, look around, touch it and understand it as if it were the real world. This is no longer science fiction.
Presence is the concept whereby a user of a virtual reality headset experiences the exact same involuntary reactions to their outside environment as they would in real life. It is the concept of not only seeing the game unfolding, but of actually being inside the game.
The implications for gaming are at the forefront. The people leading the charge are all highly respected titans of the video games industry, and without doubt the first batch of tailored VR games will be something similar to what we experienced during the initial stages of adoption of the Wii, and motion gaming. VR has it’s own rules and drawbacks - motion sickness is being combated for one, but because of the effect of presence certain established video game tropes need to be thrown away in order to make a VR game work.
However, gaming is just the initial adoption scenario. VR is the key to taking our entire technology output over the last 20 years and fashioning entire worlds in cyberspace. It will blur the lines between what is real and what is not, create new arguments about existence and philosophy, and is the closest humans have ever come to playing god.
VR will eventually become the dominant form of consumer entertainment consumption. Imagine if you could put on a VR headset, and watch a football match in real time, as if you were inside the stadium on a seat, and your body and mind had absolutely no way of differentiating. The amazing thing about presence is that the visuals do not even need to feel true to life- the actual sensation of inhabiting the virtual space over rides your visual cues over what is real and what is not. We could live in a world of stick men, we could project ourselves into space. It’s all entirely possible.
The reason people are upset about Facebook buying Oculus is that all of this possibility arose because of freedom and collaboration. The people that made Oculus left their respective posts to escape from the conformity of publishers and hardware manufacturers, to create an evolving platform that would be able to incrementally improve technology in an open source, collaborative way. Part of the promise was that freedom was being given to create worlds, concepts and things that right now we can’t even begin to predict.
Facebook can see the potential implications for such a platform. Imagine if instead of images on a screen, Amazon was a continent sized shop in which you could move around, and pick up items and investigate them in 3D space. Imagine having a virtual shopping basket you could drop the item into, as you stroll around the store. Imagine a social network as a room, upon the walls of which you had thousands of images and videos playing of the people around you. Imagine having a web conversation or business meeting face to face, in a small room in a plush hotel, even though your physical bodies are halfway across the world.
Facebook’s involvement, if it is limited to supplying vast amounts of cash, will not necessarily stifle the rift. The worry is that Facebook’s business practices are shady, with hints of totalitarianism and a disconnect between what users want and what Facebook dictates they will be given. We worry about Facebook’s attitude towards privacy and data collection. Are we really comfortable with Facebook being in charge of an entire dimension of reality? Because philosophically, that is the possibility that has arisen. None of this is hyperbole, it is real and it exists in warehouses across San Francisco. Prepare yourselves, the world is about to change entirely.