Virtual reality – not just for gamers

Virtual reality headsets immerse their wearers in imaginary 3D worlds. Gamers are the primary target group. But experts see virtual reality as being the next major technology platform by which people will communicate with each other in future.

Look to the left: Han Solo is flying just behind you in his Millennium Falcon. Look to the right, and Luke Skywalker waves at you from his X-Wing. For many film fans, the dream of flying through space with their Star Wars heroes might well soon become a reality. If only in a virtual world – but uncannily real. It is all made possible by virtual reality (VR) headsets such as the Oculus Rift, Microsoft HoloLens, or Sony’s Morpheus. “Virtual reality headsets provide users with a new experience within a three-dimensional environment that is getting ever closer to reality,” says Timm Lutter from the German digital technology association Bitkom. The VR headsets play videos and show images in 3D format on their integrated display. “Virtual reality headsets are popular above all with gamers, because they allow them to move around inside the game, so to speak,” Lutter continues.

Moving through the scenes in ­real time

As in the case of “Project Morpheus”, the new VR headset for the Sony PlayStation 4: the moment the player puts the headset on, he or she is immersed in an entirely realistic, virtual 360-degree world inside the game. The position and movement of the player’s head are precisely tracked. When the player turns his or her head, the image of the virtual world rotates realistically and intuitively in real time. The headset features a 5.7-inch OLED display and plays games at 120 frames per second. This provides unbelievably fluid graphics and delivers a sense of presence which redefines the boundaries of gameplay. VR headsets with their own displays are not cheap, however: prices for the Sony product online are around 450 euros, while the Oculus Rift costs around 700 euros. By contrast, cheaper headsets with no dedicated display only cost around 100 euros. They use a smartphone as their display: like the VR One from Zeiss, for example. It simply involves launching a VR app on the smartphone and slotting the phone into the headset. The smartphone plays stereoscopic images that the headset converts into 3D.

First TV production for virtual ­reality

The level of expectation for the virtual reality market is indicated by the investment being made by major corporations such as Google, Sony and Facebook. In 2014, for example, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg bought VR pioneer Oculus for about 2 billion dollars. For Zuckerberg, computer gamers are only the first wave of users who will increasingly be targeted by other applications, including videos and films. The first TV productions are already being made. NBCUniversal International Networks, for example, has commissioned its new series “Halcyon” for the Syfy channel, with five episodes being made available in VR on the Oculus Rift platform. An app by broadcaster Arte also enables viewers to enjoy programmes immersively using a VR headset – that is to say, the viewer forgets the real world around him or her and is immersed fully in the film. At concerts, audience members can also watch the virtual listener next to them, or create their own visual landscapes.
And virtual reality is today already being used – or at least tested – in numerous other applications: German electronics retailer Saturn is testing how virtual reality can help customers when shopping. VR can be used to configure and view a kitchen in a virtual setting, for example. Hanover Airport has developed a virtual reality app which enables users to experience the traffic on the apron of an international airport directly: giant aircraft within touching distance; a follow-me vehicle flitting by; and helicopters swarming over the airport apron – with the user inside. Another area of application is the tourism industry: with the “Mein Schiff-VR” app, developed by Zeiss for its “VR One” headset, potential customers can take a virtual tour aboard a real cruise ship, for example.

The next great tech platform

The Google and Apple app stores now offer over 400 VR apps. Major international corporations have also created their own VR apps. And at the 2016 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Samsung presented its Gear 360, a camera which enables anyone to make and share their own VR films. The South Korean company is currently already selling the third generation of its “Gear VR” headset, developed in conjunction with Oculus. As part of a three-month marketing campaign, it even gave it away free to anyone who bought a new Galaxy S7 smartphone. “On the heels of last year’s Gear VR release, Gear 360 continues to push the limits on immersive content – providing a visual experience that makes capturing and sharing life’s moments even easier,” comments D.J. Koh, President of Mobile Communications Business, Samsung Electronics. Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of virtual reality goes a lot further still: “VR is the next great tech platform that’s going to define the way we connect in the future,” he said at the last Oculus developer conference after first testing out the VR headset.

(Picture credits: Sony)

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