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Some of you may remember The Lawnmower Man, a 1992 film about a gardener who, after training in a virtual reality environment acquires paranormal powers and eventually becomes a digital demigod. It was an awful film, but it had great CGI. It also captured the 1990s Virtual Reality (VR) zeitgeist, after an army of youngsters went into academia and industry to make the hallucinations of the cyberpunks real: to take us inside cyberspace.

The boulevard of virtual (broken) dreams

It never really happened. The technology wasn’t ready. Instead of VR, we got some novelty arcade games and TV programmes, and, well, The Lawnmower Man.

Everyone gave up on VR except games developers, who did in fact create amazing virtual worlds with cheap hardware. It was logical, in that circular way in which technology trajectories can bend, that they would be the ones to deliver the original VR dream, with the Oculus Rift.

What is it?

The Oculus Rift is a VR headset with a history that reads like a Nesta fairy tale: 19-year-old Palmer Luckey harnesses Moore-like laws of technological progress in:

  • 3D printing (for prototyping)
  • LCD (for stereoscopic 3D displays)
  • Gyroscopes and accelerometers (to track the position of the user),

…and delivers a super-immersive VR experience on the cheap. In 2012 he raises $2.3 million from fans on Kickstarter, and convinces games industry (and homebrew rocket science) legend John Carnack to join him in the adventure.

Let a thousand flowers bloom

Last May, Oculus started selling $300 development kits to anyone wanting to tinker with its cutting edge 3D tech. We have seen an explosion of creativity in VR prototypes including experiences that are:

Oculus just announced that the Rift will also run on Android mobile phones. Microsoft and Sony are developing their own headsets too.

This broad-based innovation should help overcome an important hurdle to VR adoption: controller sickness caused by latency in hardware’s response to user movement, and the jarring disconnect between virtual acceleration and (lack of) physical motion. Hardware improvements, new user interface and game genres are emerging in response to this challenge.

To the Singularity, and beyond?

In December 2013, Oculus raised $75 million from venture capitalists to develop the consumer version of the Rift. As yet, there is no date for its launch, but it is expected to happen in 2014. There is a lot of excitement, but also concerns – what is the responsibility of developers now able to produce completely immersive, perhaps distressingly so – horror experiences? Is it ok to create virtual worlds so alluring, their users don’t want to come back to reality?

Beyond games and obvious applications like teleconferencing and learning environments (not least Minecraft), the Oculus Rift could be the foundation for innovative 3D user interfaces - look at this scientist using one to build a virtual nanotech buckyball in 1/40th of the time it would take to do so with mouse and keyboard.

In the longer term, it may take us closer to sci-fi holy grails like the Holodeck or, once VR is integrated with the web, cyberspace as William Gibson so poignantly described it in Neuromancer:

“A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding...”

While it is clear we won’t be jacking into the Matrix next year (we’ll have to wait for brain controlled computers for that), I predict that when we look back at 2014 from whichever virtual worlds we inhabit in the future, we will see it as the year when, with the launch of Oculus Rift, Virtual Reality became really real.

*Image courtesy of Sergey Galyonkin