If you have been on any mobile social media app lately, you have probably noticed a new trend: 360-degree pictures and videos are now swarming the internet at a rapid pace. By simply holding a smartphone in front of one's eyes, one can fully immerse himself or herself in a foreign environment, the display changing its perspective as quickly as the viewer can turn his or her head. For a more complete experience, many companies like Samsung, LG, and Google are now offering headsets which affix their phones onto the user's face, maintaining proper distance from the eyes as well as allowing for a hands-free experience. Producing 360-degree pictures and videos is no longer a gimmick used by iMax theaters and amusement parks, as cameras for doing so are now available for consumers and can be purchased for as low as $200 – e.g. the LG 360 Cam. Now anyone can take or view fully-immersive pictures or videos, allowing for a plethora of commercial uses and new possibilities. Sites like youvisit.com grant access to all kinds of VR images, allowing for virtual walk-throughs of new real estate, travel excursions, events, restaurants, or hotels. The new technology gives a new meaning to 'try before you buy,' giving consumers a peek into the experience they wish to purchase. No longer will hotel guests be surprised by the size rooms, nor concert-goers by the view from their seats. But sites like this are not only for the consumer, but for those who cannot afford the real experience. Want to see Rome but don't have the money? With just a smartphone and an inexpensive headset like the aptly-named Google Cardboard, one can experience the sights and sounds of the Colosseum from the comfort of his or her own bed. Disappointed about missing Coachella this year? With VR, music festivals are producing 360-degree pictures and videos from within the festival, saving fans from ever having to miss their favorite artists. It seems inevitable that using VR in these ways will soon branch off into a whole new type of commerce. Many of the advertisements seen on Facebook or YouTube are already fully-immersive and VR compatible. As soon as the technology becomes both advanced and widespread enough, companies could charge consumers for virtual experiences. Tickets to Beyonce might be $200+, but the tickets to view her live in VR could be sold for much cheaper, attracting a litany of new customers internationally. Every live experience offered via television or online could be offered in VR as well, accessing the market that 3D television failed to reach a several years ago.
But VR today is a lot more than simply viewing panorama-type pictures with a set of goggles akin to 19th Century technologies like the Stereoscope and View-Master, which used two binocular images to create a sense of three-dimensionality. Pioneering VR company, Oculus, became famous after their 2012 Kickstarter campaign earned $2.5 million to develop their VR headset, the Oculus Rift. In 2014, the company was purchased by Facebook for a whopping $2 billion, a testament to the reality of VR's capabilities. Oculus' plan was to give out a number of Development Kits early on, in order to allow developers time to produce programs to attract users to the Rift – which they did in spades. Earlier this year, pre-order for the Rift was opened to consumers, receiving such an overwhelming amount of interest that the Rift's release was delayed in order to meet demand. Unlike its failed predecessors such as the SEGA Genesis VR headset or the Nintendo Virtual Boy, the Oculus Rift features an “Adjacent Reality Tracker” – including a magnetometer, gyroscope, and accelerometer that allow for motion tracking at 1,000Hz per second, adjusting instantly to one's every slight movement – motion tracking hand controls, and a dual OLED display with a resolution of 2160 x 1200 and refresh rate of 90 frames per second. With this level of technology, the experience has an uncanny closeness to reality. It is no surprise that the video gaming industry is moving headfirst into the VR revolution, many developers having already accepted the technology as the future of gaming.
The Rift's biggest competitor, the HTC Vive, offers similar capabilities with an added touch that allows the user to move freely about a designated space. The only drawback is the necessity of spatial sensors that can set a 6.5' x 5' area, but are difficult to mount on walls and clunky to attach to tripods. This sets the HTC Vive apart from other VR headsets that only offer a static experience. Unlike the Rift, the Vive does not feature built-in headphones but instead comes with a small pair of in-ear headphones. Many VR users have noticed that prolonged use of the technology can cause extreme nausea, which seems to depend heavily on the program being used. Users may also notice it takes a few moments to acclimate to the program and back to regular vision after use. Overall, most seem able to adjust to the experience fairly easily, but are advised to take frequent breaks from the headset in order to avoid sickness. For those seeking to try on a VR headset for the first time, retailers like Best Buy, Microsoft, or Sony allow customers to experience the technology first-hand. It appears that VR is finally here to stay as new uses for the technology continue to pop up. As the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive continue to gain traction in the tech market, it will be interesting to see how other big name tech companies respond with their own devices and programs. It is evident that Virtual Reality will be the next revolution, not only in technology, but in modern culture.