Virtually here, now

After Facebook’s purchase of Oculus, a maker of virtual-reality headsets, are we all about to be digitised? Matt Hussey investigates

Take a walk around Dubai Mall in Downtown Dubai and if you look closely, you can catch a glimpse of what Facebook, and a number of other technology giants, thinks the future might look like.

In one corner of the Dubai Mall is the iPILOT, a commercial flight simulator that is so realistic, it’s used to help pilots learn how to fly. Over at SEGA Republic, the Wild Jungle whisks riders around an Indiana Jones-style world of dense forest, rickety bridges and near misses with other cars.

Scientists at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden have been looking at how VR technology could be used by amputees suffering from phantom-pain syndrome

Both experiences make use of virtual worlds to trick users’ senses to make them feel like they are somewhere else. While the concept isn’t new – Italian architect Baldassare Peruzzi used immersive 360-degree murals in the 1860s – the purchase of Oculus VR, a maker of virtual-reality headsets, by Facebook has pushed these fictional worlds into the mainstream.

In its short history, it has sent out some 75,000 development kits to developers eager to take advantage of the platform. Sit that number next to Facebook’s 1.3 billion users and the number seems paltry in comparison. So why has Facebook spent US$2bn investing in such a niche product?

“After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences,” said Mark Zuckerberg at the announcement of the deal in March. “Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face, just by putting on goggles in your home.”

But what might this future look like? Are we ready to hand over our senses to fictional worlds? Or will we lose interest in the technology, like we did when it first caught popular attention back in the 1990s?

If you’ve landed in Dubai International Airport recently, you may have been greeted by virtual assistants who can answer your questions and point you in the right direction. While not totally immersive, these avatars represent the tip of the iceberg for what virtual reality could offer. With a new 10.6km rapid tram system on the way in Dubai, linking the Dubai Marina area on the Arabian Gulf with the Al Sufouh district and Dubai Metro’s Red Line, passengers are being offered virtual tours of what their city will look like when the tramway has been completed. By wearing headsets from Oculus, users can ride the trams and walk around the 11 stations on the system to get a feel for the experience.

iPilot flight simulators
iPilot flight simulators allow anyone the experience of flying a large passenger jet

Projects such as these show how virtual reality can go beyond entertainment opportunities to help a greater cause. Scientists at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden have been looking at how the technology could be used by amputees suffering from phantom-pain syndrome. The condition, in which an amputee complains of pain originating from the removed limb, is difficult to treat. “Phantom-limb pain is very common in amputees,” says study researcher Max Ortiz Catalan. “Unfortunately, at the moment there is no single treatment that works for everybody.”

Catalan believes that by using virtual reality, they can help alleviate pain. To do this, he and his team fitted electrodes that recorded muscle signals from the stump of the patient’s arm and used software to convert those signals into movement of a virtual arm.

By taking control of the virtual arm, patients can use it to perform tasks, including driving a simulated car in a racing game. During the experiment, patients reported a reduction in pain and even experienced pain-free periods over the course of their virtual-reality treatments.

Virtual reality offers great promise, it seems, but is there a downside? Historically, the thing that has hampered VR from widespread adoption has been the technology it is built on.

“If you turn your head and look over there, you’ll notice a slight discrepancy and your brain will feel it,” said Tadhg Kelly, a game designer who writes the blog What Games Are, and who has been a sceptic of VR’s ability to go mainstream. “I wonder if that feeling of dislocation will ever quite go away, and if you’ll ever be able to get immersed in the scene.”

Scientists at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden have been looking at how VR technology could be used by amputees suffering from phantom-pain syndrome

Another key problem that has blighted other technological innovations such as 3D, Smell-O-Vision and computer graphics so real that they fall into the “uncanny valley” (where when the depictions of humans become too real, they produce a negative response from observers), is that they become a gimmick. All of these innovations promised to revolutionise the way we consume media, but they have all failed, or are in the process of being phased out.

So far, consumer demand for VR products has been low. As with 3D technology, consumers may be put off by the potential costs of upgrading hardware to handle imagery, as well as the peripherals to view it. Will we be sitting at home wearing headsets in five years? Or will it just be a bit of light amusement when visiting entertainment attractions? Only time will tell.