Virtual reality devices are getting pretty damn close to reality

Science Friday

Virtual Reality is back again — perhaps for real, this time.

Luke Groskin, a video producer for PRI’s Science Friday, recently tested out a new virtual reality device called the Oculus Rift, from the company Oculus VR. He says he made it back from the virtual world unscathed — and excited.

The technology has come a long way since the 1990’s, Groskin reports. “As a young kid, I went to the arcade and put on one of those football helmets ... and got nauseous and promptly ran to the bathroom — and I was very disappointed.”

Now, the screens are better, the clunkiness of the equipment has been greatly reduced, and the Oculus Rift has a 90-degree field of view, “which means that you are deeply immersed in this virtual world," Groskin says. "With a pair of headphones, you can kind of lose yourself in whatever environment you are in."

The big innovation from Oculus VR is the improvement in motion tracking, which your brain does effortlessly.

“When you move your head just slightly, even smaller than a millimeter to the left or right, your inner ear picks that up,” Groskin explains. “There is communication going on all the time between your eyes and ears.”

If what you see in the virtual world doesn’t match this communication down to a sub-millimeter, you can experience motion sickness — or virtual reality sickness — and that is unpleasant, Groskin says.

“[But] they have figured it out. They have added accelerometers, gyroscopes — all sorts of equipment in order to make it better.”

The Oculus Rift is impressive, Groskin says, but there are other video game and technology companies, including Samsung and Sony, working on similar devices. Researchers in a variety of other fields are brainstorming different ways to use the technology, too.

Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus VR, has been a long-time advocate for virtual reality and believes it’s just a matter of time until the technology is good enough to expand beyond gamers to the rest of society. For him, the only question has been this: will it happen in his lifetime?

“There is a reason that virtual reality has endured through science fiction and movies, and in books and video games and all of these different forms of media,” Luckey says.

“It's because people want to experience impossible things. They've always wanted to experience impossible things. If we can have perfect virtual reality, who wouldn't use it? Who wouldn't want to use it for something?”

This story is based on an interview from PRI's Science Friday with Ira Flatow.