Oculus, Primed

I walk away from the decontamination tent in the parking lot and down a hill toward an overturned tanker and a crashed car. My breath turns to condensation on the transparent facemask of my hazmat suit. The high-pitched, cricket-like noise of my handheld radioisotope detector fills the air as I follow a colleague down a highway onramp. We’re trying to determine the source of a radioactive hazard somewhere in the vicinity of the wreckage. I accidentally drop the detector. I bend down to pick it up, but I can’t seem to grasp it. Then I lose my balance and nearly fall forward into a computer monitor.

I’m in a small lab at Battelle testing the company’s virtual reality software, Before, with an Oculus Rift headset strapped over my eyes. After decades of waiting, the Rift is the hardware providing the strongest push for VR, with competition from Google, Samsung, Playstation, and HTC/Valve. Now, finally, it seems like there’s something tangible on the near horizon, a virtual reality that’s virtually real.

So I set out to discover what the future looks like.

Researchers Marty Fuhry, Jack Craft, and Dan Loesch—the project’s creator—lead me through the Before interactive trainer. The software creates realistic disaster scenarios, like radioactive hazards and improvised explosive devices, and allows first-responders to train for how to deal with them. The instructor leading the exercise has the ability to increase the stakes—a gas leak from the tanker or a dramatic shift in weather. Battelle is marketing Before to military units like the National Guard’s WMD civil support teams because these potential catastrophes are very expensive and time-consuming to coordinate and practice in the real world.

Loesch picks up a Rift headset and says that six years ago something comparable would have cost $80,000, offered a quarter of the resolution, and had horrible visual tracking. The problems with tracking and latency—when the screen lags behind the user’s eye and head movements—often made people nauseous. Now it’s $350 and has significantly improved tracking, and the expectation is that the new generation arriving early next year will be even more advanced.

As for the potential beyond Battelle’s purposes, the group offers plenty of possibilities—virtual reality field trips, attending live concerts remotely, high-tech maintenance training, watching a football game from a bird’s eye view—anything in which immersion plays a central role.

“We created a parking lot and an onramp in the middle of nowhere that doesn’t actually exist. And I can close my eyes and I can remember where everything is. I can see the decon tent is over there,” Fuhry says, eyes closed tight. “I’ve been there even though it doesn’t exist, and that’s something that’s just totally unique to virtual reality.”

It’s not only capable of taking us to places we’ve invented, virtual reality can return us to places that have disappeared. Poindexter Village, a Near East Side project the City of Columbus demolished two years ago, is now in the process of virtual rebirth. Poindexter’s story will live on by allowing people to wear VR headsets and explore the village as it existed when it was founded in 1940, when it was a shining example of public housing and community. Participants will walk the streets and enter into apartments to learn about the “artifacts” inside—to see what’s cooking, what’s on TV, and hear audio narratives about residents’ lives.

Ohio State professors David Staley and Ken Rinaldo are overseeing the endeavor, which is led by Staley’s student Patrick Potyondy, a doctoral candidate studying public housing and how it’s preserved. The target date for completion is April 2016, according to Mike Kaylor, the director of academic technology for OSU’s ASC Tech Services, which is providing technical guidance. He views this project as a model for proving the value of VR in education across the university’s programs.

The virtual Poindexter is under construction by two students, Riley Patrick and Samuel Kennard, who both took “Odysseus in the Oculus Rift,” a class taught by Rinaldo and professor Tom Hawkins last spring. When Rinaldo originally heard about the project from Staley, he was excited to recommend his students and assist in its creation.

Rinaldo is an unabashed futurist who specializes in robotics, animation, and 3D modeling, so he has no trouble imagining different possibilities for VR’s use—for example, to prepare surgeons for complex, personalized operations. Primarily, he expects this technology to change the art of storytelling, to bring about compassion. He mentions a virtual reality film called Clouds over Sidra, which immerses audiences in the life of a 12-year-old Syrian girl living in a refugee camp in Jordan. It brought many viewers to tears, he says; Rinaldo thinks VR systems will be “the ultimate empathy-creation machines.”

“I think that we’re looking at something completely culturally transformative in every respect of the word.”

I’m standing on a precipice. I can hear Evan Todd’s voice, but all I can see is rain and a set of block-like stone steps floating in midair, escalating into the overcast sky. The rain falls close to my face in bright streaks, like it’s reflecting light from somewhere above. It’s dreary, yet hopelessly beautiful.

Todd is the creator of Lemma, a first-person parkour game compatible with virtual reality. I’m in an upstairs bedroom in Worthington wearing a Rift; I’m also running through an imaginary world in the clouds. I’m holding an Xbox controller to direct the Lemma character—she parkours when I pull one trigger and jumps when I pull the other. My knees are weak as I prepare to hurdle from one platform to the next, and I feel like I’m stepping to the edge of a cliff, gravity tugging me downward. The slight nausea caused by the hardware itself heightens the sensation of vertigo.

The videos hyping the technology online do it no justice—akin to describing
what it’s like to swim in the ocean by drawing an illustration of a stick figure amongst the waves. Immersion adds a dimension, literally, that can only be felt.

Latency is still an issue for Todd’s Rift. He was already in the process of developing Lemma the first time he tried Oculus, and he decided immediately to make the game compatible with the technology even though it’s still a beta version. He’s not sold on VR as a revolutionary force in gaming, but like the others he can envision its potential for the military, any type of training, medicine, and designing architecture.

But his game, and others like it, may be the best way to sell the public on the promise of virtual reality after all these years spent waiting. The videos hyping the technology online do it no justice—akin to describing what it’s like to swim in the ocean by drawing an illustration of a stick figure amongst the waves. Immersion adds a dimension, literally, that can only be felt.

As the Lemma character, I creep backward along the stone platform to get a running start. I sprint toward the edge and jump, freefalling through the clouds into nothingness. I remove the Oculus and let my brain settle into my old reality. I glance out the window at the sky, threatening to rain, but it’s only a dull grey. I’m still dizzy, yet I want to return to the Rift.

For more about Evan Todd’s Lemma, visit lemmagame.com.