If you’ve been following recent tech news you’d be excused for thinking you’d gone back to the 1990s. Everyone’s talking about virtual reality again. No, they haven’t announced a remake of The Lawnmower Man (for anyone under 35, google it). It’s just that everyone’s favourite social network made another billion dollar deal. In March, Facebook bought a virtual reality platform called Oculus Rift for a cool $2bn.
But why? What have baby photos, Buzzfeed lists, and cat videos got to do with a technology platform which was originally picked up by hardcore video-gamers?
Well, it seems as if Mark Zuckerberg has made a bet on the future, a future where ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ blend, where you don’t need to be there – to be there.
What is Oculus Rift?
Oculus, which is still yet to be commercially released, was created by a 19-year-old hacker called Palmer Luckey. It was facilitated by the growth of the mobile phone industry, which radically brought down the costs of HD small-size screens and gyroscopic sensors. By using these components, Luckey managed to vastly reduce latency (the time gap between moving your head and the visuals moving) to a matter of milliseconds.
The result? The user feels less disorientated. This was traditionally the big hurdle for virtual reality, where all previous efforts were more sluggish and therefore both less convincing and less enjoyable.
The Oculus headset is basically a mask – kind of like an iPad strapped to your face. The latest version has 1080p – high definition image quality – per eye, and positional tracking (ie where your head’s actual position in space is translated to the virtual environment rather than just direction and tilt).
While initially picked up by the video games industry, the headset is not a console like PlayStation or X-Box. It can plug into any PC platform. Yet despite lots of interest from the gamer community, it has no large user base. This is where Facebook can help.
How could it be used?
What the Oculus Rift experience gives gamers is an experience that they can’t get anywhere else. It’s immersive, exciting and transportive.
Yet isn’t that what you want to get from sports, entertainment and retail? And it’s what brands try to do in their marketing and events. Gaming, while the lead application today, is only the thin end of the wedge.
What Oculus does brilliantly is translate your physical perspective somewhere different – somewhere the wearer cannot get in real life. The most literal example of this is the ‘gender swap’ experiment where you can experience what it’s like to change genders.
But imagine the potential for education: a classroom biology lesson where you can enter a bee hive. Or look over the shoulder of the best brain surgeon in the world as they do their day job. In fact David Attenborough is already working on a series filmed for Oculus Rift called Conquest of the Skies, which will show you the jungles of Borneo by using a special 360° camera rig.
You could attend exclusive catwalk shows as they happen (and then buy the clothes), explore a region of Spain before you booked your holiday, or watch the match from the manager’s viewpoint. For fans it’s a winner – O2 and the England rugby team have created an Oculus experience called Wear the Rose where you are actually able to play alongside the team.
Training for rare but critical events like emergency first aid for your child, or attending disaster (or war) zones could be explored safely and highly realistically – better preparing people for the worst.
And how about pulling up a chair with your friends on the other side of the world? Let’s call it Face-to-Facebook.
But isn’t this all a bit futuristic?
You would be excused for rolling your eyeballs at this point, thinking that all this stuff may well happen but in some distant future. Like jet packs.
However, my company Techdept was the first enterprise in the UK to use the Oculus Rift platform for marketing. And we did this in October last year – to help sell flights to European ski resorts.
It all came about while collaborating with WDMP, the direct response and relationship marketing agency. We were helping its client Monarch Airlines – which in 2012 had entered the ski market for the first time – to build their profile with independent skiers.
The campaign concept was a Monarch Mountain – it was a virtual geographical location which could act as a gateway to real ski destinations, resort information and booking details. Initially, the focus was on a 360 degree photosphere app, which you can still see at mountain.monarch.co.uk. Check it out on your phone or tablet – you can tilt and move it around!
Yet this project coincided with research and development we were doing with Oculus Rift, and we thought ‘why not build a virtual mountain’? We could literally recreate the adrenaline rush of the slopes.
So we created a ‘ski jump’ game to feature at Monarch’s presence at the Ski and Snowboard Show in Manchester and London. It allowed players to literally jump off the edge of a cliff – with the winner being the one who landed closest to a target at the base of the mountain. We even hacked a Wii Fit with Balance Board to allow players to move the skis with their body movements.
Research had shown Monarch’s target customers were digitally savvy and curious to try new things – and indeed over 2,000 people played the game over the eight days of the event. What we loved was the fact that the winner in Manchester was a four-year-old girl. And we’re very proud that it’s a finalist in the 2014 UK Digital Experience Awards.
So what happens next?
Like all emerging technologies, Oculus Rift is still being understood – both by developers and the world at large. And while some of the applications are futuristic, at Techdept we already have direct experience of how this platform can be used to engage, entertain and market a brand.
What’s without doubt is the world of virtual reality is a brave new world, and within it will be massive opportunity for start-ups and entrepreneurs to create content and applications that imagine its full potential.
As Mark Zuckerberg said when he acquired the business: “Strategically we want to start building the next major computing platform that will come after mobile.”
Either that, or in 20 years’ time we’ll be looking at those headsets and rolling our eyeballs at how naïve we were.