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05 Jun 2014

Oculus Rift and the Future of the Web

By Scott Smith

The other day, I got a chance to try out the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. I’m a geek who grew up in the 1980s, so finally getting a virtual reality experience was like finally discovering good deli in Portland (alas, I must wait). Now that I have put on the ridiculous-looking headset (which will certainly get smaller and better soon), I'm convinced that Oculus is the real thing, and my 14-year-old self is cheering and asking when he can play Zelda on it. My 30-year-old self is wondering when he can play GTA III on it.

I tried two demos: In one, I walked around rolling hills along a fictional seaside. In the other, explored Jerry’s realistically small apartment from Seinfeld. In each, my equilibrium shifted to adjust to what I was seeing, and I forgot that I was in a design studio in Portland. All you would need is to increase the resolution, add audio and let me walk around without using an Xbox controller, and maybe even add a device that can mimic the smell of the ocean (or Kramer’s hair spray). What struck me more was that the proportions were right. There was no distortion. The field of view was perfect.

What struck me next was a reminder that Facebook recently bought Oculus. What’s wonderful about that is that it will prompt many "news" articles like this one about Facebook and VR destroying our youth. But it also got me thinking beyond gaming, about various applications for the web, and where this is all headed.

I certainly don’t think that we need to worry about a version of the web as we know it. As Stephen Fry says to paper book traditionalists, “Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.” The analogy, I think, will extend to the 2D web and the 3D web, whatever it turns out to be.

E-commerce is one obvious answer, and Oculus knows what’s up. They’re hiring an e-commerce developer (that link probably won’t work for very long). This blog post features a video showing a guy surfing Facebook, realizing he needs to buy a gift, clicking on an ad in Facebook (naturally), and the website prompting him to put on his Oculus. Attached to the headset is a Leap Motion sensor, which allows him to manipulate the virtual objects with fine gestures. What it doesn’t show in the video is the ability of the computer to render an image of your hand (that can look just like your hand, of course, after taking a few photos), to make the experience even more realistic.

How might that kind of thinking translate to other web experiences and how we will tell stories? I admit that I tried Second Life in my day (it’s sort of like admitting to illegal drug use). While the experience was terrible, what was interesting about that platform was that people were inspired to either recreate real places (Amsterdam, Venice) or create huge follies that nobody could afford in real life. There’s a whole subculture of people doing that in Minecraft now. Travel sites are going to be amazing. You can imagine getting oriented in a city before you actually visit. Or will that backfire on tourism, replacing the need for many to actually sightsee?

Universities can take full advantage of this kind of technology to give potential students a glimpse into the school’s campus and amenities, but also inside its classrooms. Each location in the tour could be a virtual touchpoint that allows you to view parts of the curricular and extra-curricular offerings, in a totally immersive way. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an arms race for that technology.

Nonprofits are always trying to figure out new ways to demonstrate to people why they should donate or get involved in their cause. We can imagine being able to tour a poverty-stricken village, along with call-outs showing the scale of a problem beyond the anecdotal. Or an arts organization can show you just what kind of cultural institution they’re asking you to support.

I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens, and how quickly. We were just talking about how quickly things have changed in the browser world (ah, IE for Mac). For all of us in the business of communicating online, we should all pay close attention to Oculus and its inevitable competitors.

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