Virtual reality headset for video gamers: A matter of perception

Feb 21 2013, 10:45 IST
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SummaryVirtual reality is one of many inventions that never seemed to make the leap from science fiction to mass-market product.

Using low-cost components developed for mobile devices, a start-up called Oculus VR hopes to put a high-quality virtual reality headset within reach of video gamers

Nick Wingfield

Virtual reality is one of many inventions that never seemed to make the leap from science fiction to mass-market product. Again and again, headsets that promised to immerse people in wondrous, three-dimensional worlds have bombed with the public—held back by high prices, ungainly designs and crude graphics.

But now the bonanza of cheap, high-quality components created for the mobile electronics market, coupled with some technology innovations by a Southern California start-up called Oculus VR, could bring within reach the fantasy of many a video gamer: a virtual reality headset that costs just a few hundred dollars and puts players inside games like no television set can.

Resembling an intimidating pair of ski goggles, the Oculus Rift, as the headset is called, envelopes the vision of people who wear it in vivid, three-dimensional images. The sensation is like watching an IMAX screen that never ends. A snap of the head to the left instantly shifts the perspective inside the game in the same direction.

That connection between a player’s point of view in the game and the real world makes the experience feel more natural when, say, the game character is surrounded by a group of armoured knights. The company’s design, which is about to be delivered to game developers, is already creating buzz among industry veterans and battle-scarred believers in virtual reality.

Cliff Bleszinski, a former game designer at Epic Games who led the creation of its Gears of War series, said that the first time he wore the Rift headset, “I gazed into the abyss and the abyss gazed back at me. The next big thing isn’t always a brand-new technology that you never heard of,” Bleszinski said. “It’s this thing that existed 10 years ago and quietly got better.”

Despite its missteps in the consumer market, virtual reality has become commonplace for a number of industrial and military applications, where the high cost of headsets—from $1,000 to $50,000—has been less of an impediment. Hospitals use the headsets to train surgeons, while the United States Army has used virtual reality to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, in part by exposing soldiers to short simulations of combat.

The mass market has been far more elusive, in large part because the components in the headsets were too costly. Many of the crucial parts

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