Virtual reality has been just beyond our grasp for decades. The parts to build VR headsets were too expensive, the technology too rudimentary to convince anyone that what they were seeing was real. See also: Oculus Rift launch live.
Virtual reality has become more accessible and less expensive, thanks to Oculus. Samsung's Oculus-powered Gear VR headset is available in the US – but not in the UK yet – and Oculus Rift is expected to finally hit store shelves this year for somewhere in the £150-£300 range (again maybe in the US). But the technology has also improved by leaps and bounds, thanks to Oculus's exploitation of your terrible vision.
Oculus Chief Scientist Michael Abrash took the stage at Facebook's F8 Developers Conference on Thursday and barely mentioned the company's game-changing product. (Nope, no price or release date yet). Instead, he demonstrated how virtual reality works: by fooling your conscious mind into believing that what it sees is real.
Basically, your eyesight is completely unreliable. Remember The Dress? You know, the blue-and-black one, or the white-and-gold one, depending on how your brain perceives colour. That phenomenon is a perfect example of how our vision fails us on a daily basis – and VR headset makers like Oculus will use that failure to convince our brains that the worlds they create are real.
Michael took the F8 audience of developers and journalists through a bizarre series of visual illusion exercises to prove that our eyes are constantly lying to us. If you place a dark filter in front of one eye, your eye will perceive flat objects as having depth, which is known as the Pulfrich effect. The McGurk effect describes how what you see affects what you hear, like lips mouthing one word with a voice track saying another.
"Reality is what our brain reconstructs it to be," Abrash said. "Our experience of the world is an illusion, one that evolution has honed to be highly functional."
Once you realize just how easily the eye is tricked, virtual reality's potential to become the next generation of computing becomes a much more convincing proposition. So the saying goes: "All reality is virtual".
How Facebook will change the future of VR
That's where Facebook comes in. The company bought Oculus last year for $2 billion in a deal that made just about everyone scratch their heads. But the acquisition is a bet that virtual reality will become so impressive, so immersive, that we'll be able to use Rift headsets for just about anything.
That future is long, long way off.
"Virtual reality today is good enough to create experiences, but just barely," Abrash said. "One reason the future of VR is so bright is because it can get much, much better."
First on the priority list is haptics: the ability to use your hands in virtual worlds. Many companies are already working on that, including AltspaceVR and Leap Motion. Visuals have to improve, too. Abrash said 200 times more pixels are needed, along with better field of view and focus.
Virtual worlds also won't feel real until you can feel your own body, Abrash said. Other people won't seem real until your brain perceives avatars as human faces. There's so much work to be done.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Wednesday that Facebook is testing its own virtual efforts sans Oculus with spherical videos in News Feed, which is a way for people to experience places they've never been without leaving Facebook. At F8, spherical videos were demoed on a VR headset. The two worlds are converging, but there are many questions left unanswered.
How will movies work? What will the virtual Facebook News Feed look like? What games will people want to play? How will they want to talk to each other? Not even Facebook has those answers, but with Oculus working furiously to turn its Crescent Bay prototype into a real consumer product, and with developers on board building great virtual apps, we're closer than ever before to a truly immersive virtual experience. I just hope there are no blue-and-black or white-and-gold dresses in this brave new world.