As Real As You Want It
How would you like to train for your first day on the job from the comfort of your own home? And after that’s done, how about switching over to something a little more relaxing, like exploring a photorealistic depiction of Pompeii? Although the concept of virtual reality has been in our collective consciousness for decades, it hasn’t been until recently that the technology required to bring that pipedream to a larger audience has been realized on a commercial scale. Perhaps fueled by the works of William Gibson and his seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, pop culture just couldn’t get enough of the idea of VR in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Lawnmower Man and The Matrix may have seemed a little far-fetched at the time, but with consumer-targeted devices like the Oculus Rift, not only is true virtual reality almost here, it’s entirely affordable.
Headsets like the Rift, which work by displaying two simultaneous high-resolution (stereophonic) images to each eye, also use precise tracking of head movements to make for a more realistic perspective while navigating a simulated space. Previous VR technology experienced a massive boom in popularity and media exposure two decades ago. However, progress was halted by technological limitations, which is an issue that developers say is no longer present. “Now, you’ve got a phone that’s just as powerful as a massive computer that can serve as your virtual reality screen,” says Josh Maldonado, founder and CEO of DISCOVR, a Ryerson University startup that recently received $100,000 to work alongside industry veterans and partners in a San Francisco office space.
“Now, you’ve got a phone that’s just as powerful as a massive computer that can serve as your virtual reality screen”
Maldonado, who had his first experience with virtual reality on the Rift, says the device’s release and early adoption by the gaming industry was largely responsible for technology’s return to glory. “Oculus sort of opened the floodgates for this sort of thing to happen when Palmer Luckey created a headset that was cost-effective and that hit a consumer price point of $300,” he says. “That’s unheard of before.” Even more exciting than the idea of VR making its way to gaming are its potential uses as an educational and functional tool – an idea Maldonado and his team are already more than familiar with.
Discovr’s first project, Vessels VR, is a Magic School Bus-inspired trip that takes students on an Ontario science curriculum-based voyage through their own bloodstream. With the expertise of Stanford Professor of Archeology and History Dr. Patrick Hunt, Maldonado and his team will focus on bringing historically accurate recreations of ancient civilizations’ achievements to life, the first of which is called Discovr Rome. “The next six months is building a library of educational content and getting it in schools to test how effective it is, because ultimately we don’t want to just do educational content with new technology because it’s cool,” Maldonado says. “We actually want to know that this is helping students learn effectively, that something is sticking with them, that it’s more than just a compelling entertainment experience.”
Also in the works is a web application that Maldonado says will allow teachers to track their students’ progress while navigating their surroundings. “If you’re a teacher, you can’t see where your student is or what he’s doing inside of virtual reality. You see a kid with a headset on,” he says. By displaying what each student plugged in is currently seeing themselves, not only will educators be able to provide helpful feedback and monitor their achievements, but employers as well.
Discovr is also working on an industrial training application that Maldonado says will provide its users with the experience of operating a scissor lift. With numerous potential applications and demand for these exciting new devices steadily growing, developers of headsets like the Rift are taking full advantage of crowd funding websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo by putting to use early adopter’s donations in the streamlining of prototypes, and in the case of the Rift, the anticipated consumer model.
“If you were to compare the VR industry to the camera industry before the iPhone came out, it really starts to make sense."
Despite being relatively inexpensive compared to previous VR tech – some of which cost could cost upwards of $10,000 according to Maldonado – the ultimate gateway into the technology is already in most people’s pockets.
That’s why another Toronto-based company is seeking to create the full virtual reality experience with devices that we’re already familiar with: our smartphones. “If you were to compare the VR industry to the camera industry before the iPhone came out, it really starts to make sense,” says Milan Baic, founder of Cordon Media Inc. His team’s creation is Pinch, a slim smartphone case that pairs with two thumb controllers that allow users to literally reach out and touch their content. If Minority Report or Johnny Mnemonic immediately springs to mind, you’re on the right track. “[The controllers] are essentially rings that you put on your thumb and you pinch them to interact. They’re almost like two cursors or two mice that you control with your hands,” he says. Baic says that science-fiction films actually played a key role in how he and the rest of Cordon brought Pinch to life. “I think the public really starts getting involved when someone visualizes it in a really great motion picture, or a comic book… those types of creative process allow the public to visually understand what something like this could mean and what it could look like,” he says.
Baic says though the Rift is incredibly good at what it does, he feels that the technology for a true immersive experience isn’t quite there yet – an issue he and his team are circumventing by instead improving upon what most people use their phones for. “What we’re trying to do is say… ‘Is there a better way to do that? That’s more engaging, that makes you feel like you’re in this virtual lounge surrounded by your content, that you can engage with in this limitless way?” he says. “People can relate to that a lot easier, and I think that’s the first logical step to ultimately, in the next five to 10 years, recreating what you pick up with your senses right now in a virtual way.”
“They’ve taken our headset and implemented a really high-framerate trigger system that flashes pulses of light in different locations, and when you wear the headset, it actually stimulates different parts of your retina, which stimulates different parts of the brain.”
He also compares the burgeoning VR industry to the state of camera technology circa 2005. “You have the disposable headsets, the Google Cardboards of the world, and you have the extremely high-end headsets, the Oculus Rifts, that really create that special experience that’s better than anything else,” he says. “But then there’s this middle area – the equivalent of a point and shoot VR headset, if you will – and I think that technology is going to integrate itself into the phone the same way that the camera integrated itself.” But it’s not just the “point-and-shoot” VR headsets like Pinch that are using smartphones – as Baic notes, both of the released developer models of the Oculus Rift also used Samsung components. “I think that’s what really tells you a lot about how important the smartphone is to this technology,” he says.
Like Maldonado, Baic also sees VR technology being implemented across a variety of industries, and says one company has already put Pinch to use as a means of treating autism. “They’ve taken our headset and implemented a really high-framerate trigger system that flashes pulses of light in different locations, and when you wear the headset, it actually stimulates different parts of your retina, which stimulates different parts of the brain,” he says. Although VR has had a long journey, the technology is expected to achieve widespread commercial acceptance, with both Maldonado and Baic anticipating a tipping point sooner rather than later. “Once you experience it, you intuitively recognize that it’s the evolution of the way that we’re going to digest content,” Maldonado says. And for Rob Robson, coordinator of the game programming diploma program at Humber College, it’s a gateway to experiences that otherwise simply wouldn’t be possible. “Most people don’t get the chance to actually visit Pompeii… but they could make it there virtually,” Robson says. “Anyone could! And if you’ve got a really good immersive experience… what’s the difference?”