How a £300 virtual reality headset could revolutionise how creators and consumers view products and houses, and learn physical tasks.

Nonny de la Peña is a journalist, but she doesn't report tragedies. She helps you experience them. She mixes virtual reality with real-world audio clips to drop you into the role of an observer as chaos unfolds in a food bank line in Los Angeles (below), or into the virtual shoes of a detainee bound for Gitmo. More than mere words, her works are a punch in the gut.

Annette Mossel is a PhD candidate and lecturer at the Interactive Media Systems Group at Vienna University of Technology, but her interest in virtual worlds delivers tangible benefits. One IMSG project trains amputees to use their new muscle-sensing myoelectric prostheses – months before the complex device is actually manufactured. More than mere theory, her VR work helps people regain control of their physical capabilities much faster than was previously possible.

There's no doubt about it: Virtual reality has the potential to profoundly alter our lives. So far, though, its reach has rarely extended beyond well-funded institutes, government agencies and nausea-inducing 90s arcade games.

That could soon change, however – thanks in large measure to PC gaming accessories like the Oculus Rift, a gaming-focused VR headset "designed for immersive games" but capable of so, so much more. Mere toys? Ha. These devices could be the keys that unlock the future.

An eye-opening experience

My eyes were opened to the potential of the Oculus Rift at this year's E3 gaming convention, where I tried the VR headset for the first time. While the game-related portion of the demo was impressive, the VR Cinema 3D trial truly blew my mind.

VR Cinema 3D, an Oculus-compatible app created by Joo-Hyung Ahn using the popular Unity game engine, dropped me into a cinema (below), complete with rows of seats and a flickering projector behind me. After a moment, a theatrical trailer for The Hangover Part III sprang to life on the big screen.

Sure, it sounds simple, and it was. But the sense of just plain being there was palpable: I felt as though I were truly sitting in a cinema seat, giggling at Zach Galifianakis. The Oculus Rift's wide field of view completely blocked out the real world and immersed me in the digital, while the responsive sensor package built into the Rift tracked my head movements flawlessly. I was in that cinema. The only thing missing was the popcorn.

"With this technology," says Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus VR, "the field of view (FOV) is so wide that a switch in your brain flips, and within a few seconds your brain feels like that is reality. It feels that what it's looking at is actually where you are. If you have a small FOV, like many of the previous devices out there, your brain knows it's looking at a screen."

Visions of a virtual Jurassic Park danced through my head. That three-minute demo convinced me that the Rift's potential extends far beyond games – and apparently, I was late to the realisation.

Worlds of possibilities

"In the first 30 days on Kickstarter, we started getting almost inundated with emails from people in [nongaming] markets," says Iribe. "A lot of them came from medical fields, the military, architecture, automobile design, even fitness. There were just so many people reaching out to us."

With a little imagination, it's easy to envision scads of nongaming uses for an affordable VR device like the Oculus Rift.

An early tech demo for the Rift, dubbed Tuscany, let users explore a virtual villa in the Italian countryside. Imagine the technology being used to explore foreign locales or historical events as part of an educational curriculum, or a Total Recallesque tourism service. Something like Undercurrent (above) could be converted to allow students to explore the Titanic shipwreck. Already, Titans of Space offers a jaunt through a built-to-scale solar system.

"You can immerse [yourself] in places which are virtual or even real, but remote," says Mossel. "Imagine watching through a robot's eyes that is exploring a cave, or another environment that is too dangerous for humans to go. Turning your head...could also trigger the robot to turn its head."

But the Oculus Rift could be used for more than simple exploration.

Tours of exotic locations could entice would-be exercisers to use treadmills and stationary bikes. Teens could learn to drive in virtual cars before hitting the real road. VR replicas of the entire US Library of Congress – complete with a full selection of readable books – could replace e-readers. Much of Mossel's IMSG work, such as the aforementioned prosthesis training (below) and Playmancer, focuses on physical therapy and rehabilitation. Others are using VR for mental therapy, helping veterans to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder. Immersive journalism can virtually embed us at important events, shattering the fishbowl-gazing vibe of watching the news on the flatscreen.

Both Iribe and Mossel are excited about potential social VR applications. Mossel notes that speedier Internet technology, together with improvements to CPU and GPU processing power, "make it possible to build shared collaborative VR systems where users can interact remotely in real-time."

Iribe takes a more personal tack. "What happens when you look not just a video game bot or monster in the eyes, but when you're in a social multiplayer experience when you look your friend in the eye in this virtual environment?" he ponders. "You'll really feel connected to them because you're looking them in the eyes, and your mouth is moving to your lips using the audio in the game. That's going to spark a lot of emotion that has never been sparked before."

Second Life never sounded so potentially awesome.

"Can you imagine the educational possibilities?" asks de la Peña, who feels that VR is on the verge of mainstream adoption. "They're limitless, just limitless. But they've taken a few things to come together."

Indeed they have--and a lot of those things were designed first and foremost for PC gaming.

Crossing the rift

Design engineers use Canon's Mixed Reality augmented VR headset, which costs $125,000 (£83,000) up front, with additional annual maintenance charges of $25,000 (£16,600) – not exactly friendly pricing for most creatives or consumers.

Virtual reality is nothing new, of course.

Specialized VR tools have been around for a while now, training soldiers to shoot, pilots to fly, and disabled people to conquer their handicaps. But up until now, the high cost of virtual reality setups has severely limited their adoption. The jankiest VR headsets out there cost north of £500; many rigs run in the tens or (gulp!) hundreds of thousands.

"One of the biggest problems of VR nowadays is that the complete setup to build an immersive environment is too expensive – a minimum of €10,000 (£8,650) or more – for the mass market and many institutions, [such as] schools," says Mossel.

With such a sky-high barrier to entry, VR adoption has largely been limited to universities, government programs, pilot-training simulators, and occasional industrial uses. Mainstream penetration is virtually nil, which is hardly surprising when taking a tour through virtual worlds pretty much costs a physical arm and a leg.

Then there's the Oculus Rift.

Oculus VR managed to move more than 7,500 developer versions of its headset (priced at $300/£200) in its 30 days on Kickstarter, and the company is still accepting dev kit orders through its website. At E3, Iribe told me that the final consumer version of the Rift will "almost certainly" cost less than $500/£330 at launch. How does Oculus manufacture the Rift so cheaply? Simple: By using commodity components like the ones in your smartphone.

"Just a couple of years ago, the goggles were $50,000 to $100,000 (£33-66,000) a pop," says de la Peña. "So when I started begging these [university] labs to let me in to work years ago, it was thoroughly begging to get in and get access to the equipment. And now I'm building stuff in [the Unity engine], on my own, with systems that are accessible to anybody. That's extraordinary."

Beyond the rift

De la Peña's Unity talk brings up an important point: The Oculus Rift isn't alone in driving the potential for mainstream VR forward.

The rise of ubiquitous, licensable game engines like Epic's Unreal Engine and Unity3D – both of which support the Rift, by the way – has made creating VR-accessible worlds much less complicated than it used to be. And if Oculus has anything to say about it, such efforts will only get easier as time goes on. Iribe says that much of the $16 million in venture funding that Oculus VR recently secured will be used to ramp up staffing, to improve training, and to upgrade support for software developers.

"VR is a new category of development," says Iribe. "There are a lot of challenges to it... For developers to go out there and make really compelling VR applications and games, they're going to need help. And they're going to need support, and they're going to need documentation, and they're going to need tutorials, because it's new."

But the real star of the show is the commoditization of VR-compatible hardware, and it doesn't end with the Rift.

Virtual reality involves more than a head-mounted display. To feel truly involved, you need a way to interact with your digital environment. Games tend to use simple gamepads, which work fine for amusing diversions. But serious VR use requires more-natural interfaces than thumbsticks and buttons.

Fortunately, VR researchers have found that another pair of PC gaming accessories fill the required role nicely: the £65 Razer Hydra motion controller (above) and the £125 Microsoft Kinect motion and voice sensor. Both devices enable users to interact seamlessly with VR worlds without breaking the bank.

"Lowering the costs of each required hardware component makes VR systems affordable, and thus much more appealing for the mass market," says Mossel, who calls both the Hydra and the Kinect big successes in the VR realm.

Surgeon Simulator 2013, pictured above, offers a game-focused sense of the possibilities, thanks to its Oculus Rift and Razer Hydra support. Oculus VR's Iribe mentioned virtual surgery training for medical students as a possible use for the Oculus Rift down the line, so Surgeon Simulator 2013 may be a simplified glimpse into the future – not that today's simple, VR-friendly gaming tools could be used for critical applications, as both Iribe and Mossel stressed.

"Though the Kinect offers full-body motion tracking, it lacks accuracy compared to a multicamera based tracking system," Mossel says. "The projects I mentioned all require very precise position and orientation tracking, so the Kinect would not be enough. More-affordable and also easy-to-use and -maintain solutions need to be developed."

But the hardware on hand today is all the average person needs for a perfectly suitable VR jaunt, and their low-cost implementations provide a possible roadmap for more-nuanced tools down the line.

What's more, new hardware with natural, alternative interfaces seems to be springing up every other day. when paired with the Rift, the Kickstarter-backed $400/£265 Virtuix Omni treadmill gets you halfway to a true VR suite, as demonstrated in the Minecraft-sporting video above. Imagine combining those items with Thalmic Labs' MYO armband, which supposedly is sensitive enough to pick up subtle finger movements. It's also easy to see something like the $80/£55 Leap Motion controller fitting into the consumer VR mix.

Peering into the future

As de la Peña says, the virtual stars seem to be aligning, but the Oculus Rift (above) – or something like it – is the celestial body at the centre of this potential VR universe. Inexpensive, easy-to-use, easy-to-repair virtual-reality hardware will have far more mainstream appeal than anything available today, especially if killer apps show up to accompany it.

In that sense, Oculus VR's decision to roll with a game-focused vision makes total sense. People love games, and the appeal of VR-enabled games has already helped ship more than 17,000 Oculus Rift developer kits. Thousands more are still on preorder, and hordes of big-name developers have pledged allegiance to the VR flag. Games get the Rift in the door.

Or rather, it could do so, someday. The consumer version of the Oculus Rift has yet to ship, as the company integrates higher-resolution 1080p displays and support for nifty natural interfaces, rather than keyboards and gamepads alone.

From games to game-changing applications

Head-mounted displays are unlikely to become household items anytime soon. The Holodeck is still nothing more than a Star Trek fantasy. Consumer VR's day in the sun has yet to come--but the first tentative rays of hope are starting to peek over the distant horizon. And if--when?-- that day comes, the benefits could be downright momentous.

Just ask Mossel: "It's great to see patients with the Virtual Prosthesis Trainer, who have been really thankful to see technologies like this emerge to simplify their lives," she says.

Someday soon, almost everyone could have access to potentially life-altering tools like the Virtual Prosthesis Trainer. When that happens, it'll be thanks to gaming peripherals like Microsoft's Kinect, Razer's Hydra, and perhaps most importantly, the Oculus Rift.