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Welcoming Grandma Into Our Virtual Future

Wed, 04/24/2013 - 9:57am
Joel Hans, Managing Editor, Manufacturing.net

A virtual reality (VR) headset by the name of Oculus Rift made a big splash on Kickstarter, raising a stellar $2.43 million to get development kits into the hands and on the noggins of game developers. And now that the units have started to ship, people in the gaming community are getting treated to video after video of people wearing the goggles and trying to explain just how floored they are at the level of realism and immersion. Not too long ago, Paul Rivot, who works at  Imagimind Studios in New York, uploaded a video to YouTube of his 90-year-old grandmother trying out virtual reality for the first time.

Take a look:

Now, Paul’s grandmother is a charmer in her own right, but as you see her move her head back and forth, and marvel over the realism of details like leaves blowing in a 3D-generated world, it’s clear just how revolutionary this technology is finally becoming. Virtual reality has been around in the form of flight simulators for decades, and the military has used it to help train soldiers, but it’s never been good or cheap enough to “wow” the average consumer — and the grandmother in question certainly isn’t in the Oculus Rift’s target market.

In truth, wearable, head-mounted VR units are really nothing new, but turning them into consumer technology is. And at $300 for a development kit (the cost should be the same or lower for a consumer model) is just about as affordable as a new iPhone under contract, which means it’s well within the reach of ordinary people. That’s a very new development, and could be a very exciting one.

Why am I so intrigued? There’s a part of me that wonders if we’ll look back at the Oculus Rift someday and think about it the same way we do the advent of televisions or smartphones.

I feel that every generation experiences at least once technology that is a complete diversion from what existed before, one that fundamentally changes the way our society works. These revolutions challenge us to adapt and take on new ways of thinking. Back in the early 20th Century, that revolution was affordable cars and the very first airplanes. There was radio, and then television, and then the advent of personal computing. Younger generations have already been defined by the advent of the Internet, although older ones have had to learn the technology as well. Looking into the future, however, when I’m at the age my parents are now, I have no doubt this “World Wide Web” will look fairly petty in hindsight.

These changes are usually precipitated by a technology meeting two goals: it has to be cheap, and it has to be relatively easy to consume. The media-based technologies, like television or the Internet, are extraordinarily easy to learn, fit this bill perfectly. One learns to drive a car in the span of a few months, and with airplanes, one just sits back and tries to relax (pilots, not as much). Generally speaking, they’re well within the financial means of most Americans.

I was talking about this with some of my family recently, and we decided that for Baby Boomers, one of these transformative technologies has been smartphones. While the Internet was a big change itself, the ability to access almost any piece of information from almost any location is something most Boomers would have not believed possible.

That leads me back to VR. I wonder if it doesn’t have the potential to change much of the way we interact with computers, and if it could be, someday, the type of technology that challenges even the most computer-literate people into working in a completely new way. And now that we’re finally getting close to the “cheap” requirement, things could get very exciting, very soon.

We’ve seen futuristic methods of working with computers in movies like Minority Report, but this technology sparks a whole plethora of new possibilities. As an editor and writer, there are times I wish I could zone out the office around me, and I’d be willing to fork over a few hundred for an experience that would allow me to sit at a typewriter in the middle of a forest, or at a beach, and type to the sound of the wind blowing.

That doesn’t mean we’ll see developments overnight — the Internet took years to get major traction, and so did automobiles. It took quite some time for the majority of Americans to drop TVs in their living rooms. But think about the changes between TVs back in the 1950s and today — just about nothing is the same. If we consider VR to be in that beginning stage, it could, even ten years from now, but completely revolutionary.

The applications are endless, and could spread out from the current state of entertainment into educational tools or training systems for “ordinary” people, not just pilots and astronauts. It’s already being hailed as a revolutionary new device for treating PTSD, as doctors have been testing clunkier and lower-quality VR devices as treatments as more American soldiers come back from abroad with psychological issues. The Oculus Rift is just an early attempt and figuring out how the general public will use VR — Google Glass is no different. And in five years, I have no doubt the two will continue to merge together in terms of technology and scope.

If you go on YouTube and search for “Oculus Rift,” it won’t be hard to find videos of people reacting to wearing the device for the first time. Many of them are just as charming as Rivot’s grandmother. And to me, this is the best evidence yet that VR could be one major component of our technological future. I have to believe that is how people reacted when they first tuned their black-and-white televisions, or when they first sat behind a steering wheel.

Fortunately, if VR doesn’t pan out in the long run, we’re living in a world where any number of emerging technologies could reach that boiling point of utility and cost. How about VR goggles that track our exercise and sleeping habits while offering mobile gaming and streaming video using eye movements and winking as inputs, all printed with sustainable materials out of a dirt-cheap 3D printer? The future can’t come soon enough.

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