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Tech Talk

Don’t Call it a Virtual Comeback


Recounting the trove of unsuccessful entertainment mediums plays like a bad joke. Spectacular failures start with eight track, move quickly to betamax, skip a decade to laserdisc, followed 15 years later by HD DVD. In all of these cases, an alternative platform  (i.e. audio cassette, VHS, DVD and Blu-ray) took off, where they crashed and burned. While all of these failures flamed out quickly, others never seem to see the writing on the wall. Case in point? Virtual reality. tech

Twenty years ago, virtual reality seemed like the next big thing. It started popping up in mall arcades, movies were littered with storylines about virtual reality, and Nintendo developed the face-mounting “Virtual Boy” gaming system. With the exception of a few wildly successful films, virtual reality fell flat with consumers. Yet unlike entertainment technology that went the way of the dodo, virtual reality never truly died. In fact today it is roaring back to relevancy.

Three years ago, a small startup called Oculus VR revived the tech community’s dormant virtual reality dream with the Oculus Rift. Much like the Virtual Boy, Oculus Rift is a face-mounted mask that delivers life-like video and gaming, albeit in high definition and 3D. Teamed with its open-sourced development kit, a hugely successful crowd funding campaign, and a handful of viral videos, Oculus Rift catapulted to tech prominence. Not only was Oculus trendy, it was valuable. So much so that 18 months after raising $2.4 million on Kickstarter, Facebook acquired it for $2 billion.

Although desirability remains high for the Rift, neither Facebook nor Oculus VR have been able to capitalize on its trendiness. Today developers can get their hands on a headset, but nearly three years into its development, a consumer product has yet to hit the market. While the Rift isn’t readily available, Oculus VR partnered with Samsung last year to release the Samsung Gear VR. Very similar to the Rift, for only $360 Gear VR connects to Samsung mobile devices, allowing users and offers users dozens of free demos and virtual experiences. Although also like the Rift, the selection of virtual content is miniscule and tech isn’t completely ironed out.

Even with the hiccups and slow development, entertainment producers are foaming at the mouth over the potential of virtual reality. The NBA has already started demoing filming games for the virtual reality headsets. In the near future, users will be able to watch NBA games with virtual courtside seats. With special 180-degree cameras mounted on the announcers’ half court station, viewers are practically immersed in the game action — all the benefits of great floor seats, minus the $1,000 ticket and equally absurd concession prices.

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Following the NBA’s lead, Hollywood is eager to jump into the virtual entertainment world. Last October the Oculus Rift debuted its first “film” titled “Zero Point.” Featuring no characters or plot, some may not consider “Zero Point” a film, but it did feature several scenes loosely tied together with voiceovers. If Hollywood can find any excuse to convert a film into 3D, it seems like only a matter of time before it does the same for virtual reality.

As excited as the tech community is for Oculus Rift and virtual reality to take off, there is one major hurdle for it clear. No matter how you do it, using a Rift, a Gear VR or any other virtual system means strapping something to your face. As much as I’d like to sit virtually courtside, or feel like I’m in Iron Man’s suit, I’m not prepared to cut myself off from the world to do it. CV


Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.

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