Five incredible ways Oculus Rift will go beyond gaming
30th Jan 2014 | 16:00
From medicine to military applications
When you think of virtual reality, you think of games. You imagine yourself running around a Tron-like rendition of the real world, participating in a massive game of laser tag, shooting your friends in the face without any consequences.
Of course, that's precisely what the Oculus Rift was designed for, with its note-perfect balance of affordable hardware and the cutting edge. And yet, the most exciting innovations going on aren't anything to do with kill/death ratios, gruff dudes shooting aliens or Tron.
Virtual reality extends further than you can imagine, to tangible, real world applications. Movies are one example, but there are plenty more. Here, TechRadar takes a look at the most exciting and intriguing non-gaming uses for the Oculus Rift to see what else lies in the future of virtual reality.
Jon Brouchoud first plied his trade in architecture and is now the creator of Arch Virtual, specialists in creating 3D environments specifically with virtual and augmented reality in mind.
"We discovered this whole ecosystem around virtual reality: businesses, schools, government and military applications," he says. Ever since then, Brouchoud has been working exclusively within VR.
Arch Virtual now deals with real estate, architectural planning, healthcare simulation modelling, virtual campuses, automotive manufacture and urban planning. In some senses, virtual reality has allowed the firm to fully realise its tagline: "anything you can imagine".
Prior to the Oculus Rift, Arch Virtual mostly operated with Unity-based web applications. "There wasn't any hardware worth looking into," says Brouchoud. But from the second it hit Kickstarter, Brouchoud jumped straight in. "I knew this was going to change architecture forever".
For Wessels, manufacturer of pressure tanks, Brouchoud designed a virtual warehouse for use at trade shows. "They make these huge pieces of equipment that are difficult to transport, sometimes one or two storeys tall," he tells us.
"A virtual reality experience enables people to feel as if they're standing in their warehouse. Nothing else can quite leave that impression."
Brouchoud envisions a VR future in which architecture can be altered in real time, allowing for a unique, bespoke experience not dissimilar to that seen in Christopher Nolan's Inception: "The holy grail is that architectures and designers will be able to create in an iterative way, within the building. Making decisions, reaching out and moving walls in real time."
"You can almost conceptually imagine a time when the architecture is literally perfect, crystallised around exactly the way we're going to use the building," he adds. "Rather than this abstract blueprint realisation process, the buildings will fit like a glove."
Check out more about Arch Virtual here.
2. Education and autism
Mathieu Marunczyn is both ICT leader and a teacher at the Jackson School in Victoria, Australia. At the forefront of gamifying education, Mathieu's introduced Minecraftand Leap Motion to the classroom, and is now working with the Oculus Rift.
"We've been exploring its applications in special needs education, working with the programs and software that are freely available and seeing how kids respond," he tells TechRadar. "Primarily I've been looking at its potential for kids who have sensory processing disorders."
In conjunction with the school's Autism Spectrum Disorder Specialist Naserah Khan, Marunczyn has used Oculus titles SpaceWalkand Blue Marble for their predictability, limited motion, and the fact they're generally not over-stimulating.
The initial use of the Oculus has shown that kids are really keen to use it, regardless of age or disability. It's been really conducive to small sharing groups. For example, kids working together in SpaceWalk talking about their experience, making up space stories.
Not being a developer means Marunczyn has had to work with what's currently available, with educational resources as a strict premium.
"I'd really like to keep exploring the meditative and calming aspects of VR for kids with autism and other disabilities," he says.
"I think role-play environments also have a lot of potential for kids with anxiety issues and autism because you could build something and have them guided through the initial experience and what to expect."
3. 3D Design
Sat behind the exploding potential of virtual reality in the world of next big things is 3D printing. One developer who's seeking to merge the two is Sixense with its tantalising MakeVR concept.
The company's Vice President of Marketing Steve Nguyen has seen a steep drop in the price of 3D printing, but despite this he says "people still have a hard time creating".
It can be very hard to 3D model using a 2D interface with a mouse and keyboard. And they're also difficult to learn. MakeVR seeks to be an all-inclusive means of 3D modelling.
"That group who wants to make something but doesn't necessarily have the timescale, inclination or money to go off and learn these tools," explains Nguyen. "We call it 3D modelling for everyone."
Their proprietary software and bespoke STEM System caters for both freeform and precision modelling. As its name suggests, MakeVR was created with the Oculus Rift in mind.
"It was designed for full immersion," says Nguyen. "It's fun to do but it also adds to productivity. When you look down at your hands, they're exactly where you'd expect them to be. Acquiring objects is second nature. When you have 3D actions with 3D results, everything works perfectly."
Sixense's MakeVR Kickstarter begins on February 5.
4. Anxiety and phobia treatment
The Oculus Rift is also finding its feet in the world of cognitive behavioural therapies. Fernando M Tarnogol is devising the Anxiety Management Virtual Reality Platform, conceived for the treatment of common specific phobias and anxiety disorders, utilising existing therapy protocol, such as acrophobia, arachnophobia, claustrophobia and agoraphobia.
"Anxiety disorders and phobias are a real problem that affects one in 60 people in the US. Studies have proved that virtual reality therapy can be as effective as in-vivo exposure - being exposed to real heights, for instance - or imaginary exposure."
Tarnogol says she sees the benefits of VR as innumerable: "The person doesn't have to be exposed to the real stressor, which is usually a barrier to entering treatment; the person can disengage immediately from the situation should it become unbearable, and the environment and conditions can be structured and tailored to each case."
"Up until now, the cost of the hardware to enable these types of treatments has been prohibitive outside academic or well funded environments," she tells us. "With the advent of Oculus Rift, this barrier will be completely erased, opening the door to independent professionals, mental health organisations and institutions who were previously unable to use this technology."
AMVR is not being aimed at the general public, since the software is a tool intended for use by professionals. "There is still lots of research to be made in this area before we even attempt to try something like this. Still, if complemented with the guidance of a professional, AMVR could potentially be used as 'homework' in between sessions."
5. Post-traumatic stress disorder
Virtual reality has further medical efficacy when it comes to assisting in treatment of combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder, as shown by Dr Skip Rizzo and the work done at the University of Southern California's Institute of Creative Technologies.
Prolonged Exposure has proven an effective therapy, through the gradual recollection of the traumatic event to allow patients to process it, however one of the key symptoms of PTSD is an inability or refusal to recall such an occurrence.
Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy, the reconstruction of events in a virtual environment controlled by the patient, has proven remarkably successful - especially within the Virtual Iraq/Afghanistan VRET System.
Using an Emagin Z-800 3D visor rather than an Oculus Rift, research showed drastic decreases in PTSD symptoms, one finding 80% of patients no longer classifying as PTSD sufferers.
This system was limited but held great promise, and in 2011 Project BRAVEMIND was launched with Unity-based software that increased the number of actionable scenarios as well as vehicles with far higher fidelity textures and animations.
The system seeks to incorporate the Oculus Rift once the high-definition version is available, expanding VRET to include scenarios specifically for military sexual trauma – taking care not to recreate sexual assaults, but the context in which it occurred – and combat medics.
- Read our hands on review with the latest version of Oculus Rift