Throw together a state-of-the-art program and an ingenious idea and what you have is the Oculus Rift — a $300 console that creates highly immersive virtual realities using only a stripped-down tablet, a pair of stereoscopic lenses and a processor for hardware. After its latest iteration debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show at Las Vegas in January this year, inventive applications of the Rift are cropping up in e-learning, gaming, search-and-rescue simulations and sports training.
Created by an American company named Oculus VR, the Rift has been engineered primarily as a gaming device. It consists of a display component mounted on the front of the head, an external controller for navigation, and a connection to a processor that runs the program.
Part of the success that Rift has seen has been due to a software framework called Unity, which is the program that renders the virtual reality. It has two variants, one free and the other paid-for. It is written in C++, with the programming script being C# or Python, and is very versatile.
“The gap between a small game studio and a big game studio is the quality, and this gap has narrowed because of Unity. Unity makes it easy to build a high quality game,” said P.R. Rajendran, a Chennai-based developer who was among the first from India to jump on the Rift bandwagon little over a year ago.
Together with its ability to deliver games for a variety of platforms, building products on Unity means platform-agnostic access to the market.
NextWave Multimedia, Mr. Rajendran’s company, has developed a virtual-reality dirt-bike racing simulator for motorcycles manufacturer TVS. Using inputs about the terrain, weaned from the company’s racetrack near Hosur, and some principles of Newtonian mechanics, NextWave put together a ‘game’ on the Rift that could accurately simulate riding conditions, turns, jumps, and acceleration. “Apart from figuring out the racing mechanics, we took about 30 days to build this,” Mr. Rajendran said.
Most applications being envisaged for this device attempt to resolve issues of safety and repeatability.
For example, according to Mr. Rajendran, there are doctors in the country interested in developing a 3D ‘digital cadaver’ on which doctors can learn to perform operations. Another client of his, from Canada, plans to use the Rift to simulate search-and-rescue operations.
A Canadian programmer, Ben Kane, has developed a Rift-based game where players learn how to disarm explosives. The US Navy is testing the Oculus Rift’s applicability in the battlefield through a project called BlueShark. Defence-equipment manufacturer BAE Systems has adapted the Google Glass for war through a Rift-like helmet. A Swedish team called Intuitive Aerial is planning to build pilotless drones interfaced through the Rift.
All these examples are from late 2013 to early 2014, and together encourage a revolution in the gaming industry that goes beyond just playing to learning experiences, possibly as far as medical training and national security.
To Mr. Rajendran, the icing on the cake has been that all this was existing technology put together in a new way, and made affordable at $300 apiece.
“The game engine is affordable, the virtual reality headset is affordable and the portability is very high. This is very promising,” he quipped.