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It has never been easier—nor more worthwhile—to get into virtual reality. After decades of disappointment, the VR revolution is finally coming. The inciting incident was the Kickstarter for Oculus Rift, in 2012. The device passed its $250,000 goal in fewer than 24 hours and ended up pulling in nearly ten times that much from interested and eager backers. The team expanded and was ultimately purchased by Facebook, for $2 billion, a year later. VR was officially a Big Deal.
Oculus Rift consumer release during CES 2016
Though the consumer release of the Rift is slated for the first half of this year, Oculus has already released two development kits—proof-of-concepts that serve to excite and invigorate consumers and content creators. Parallel to the rise of the Rift, and headsets like it, has been a wave of new headsets designed for your smartphone. Taking advantage of the fast processors and needlessly pixel-dense displays in modern phones, these headsets have created a viable and more affordable way to experience VR.
Oculus Rift Development Kit 2
For now, much of the focus in the VR space is on video games. Indeed, Oculus was founded as a video game company. It’s not just that game players are predisposed toward immersion in virtual worlds; PC gaming is an expensive hobby, and those involved are often early adopters, always after the latest and greatest tech. While games for modern consoles often target 30 or 60 frames per second, gaming monitors allow for players with capable hardware to experience frame rates up to 144 frames per second. At least at first, the Rift will be targeting that market, especially since greater-than-60 fps frame rates are needed to have smooth VR play.
For those who got their hands on a Rift Developer Kit, there are many options, though Oculus Share is a good place to start. It has games, “experiences,” official mods, and more. There are projects beyond Oculus’s walls, too: Unofficial mods for games like the zombie shooter Left 4 Dead and first-person runner Mirror’s Edge have added Oculus Rift support, and 2015’s Alien: Isolation has a secret, experimental VR mode that can be easily enabled. With Oculus integration now a plug-in for the widely popular Unreal Engine 4, adding VR capabilities to games has never been simpler. Developers are guaranteed to take advantage of that fact.
Unreal Engine provides editing tools for developers interested in creating VR content.
Of course, it’s not all about the games. The creation of VR video, for example, is becoming viable even for those on a budget. New products are announced or released constantly, all hoping to make the creation of 360-degree experiences as mainstream as possible.
Experiential Content from The Reef: Two Rocks on Oculus Rift
Videos require less processing power than full games, which makes them especially perfect for smartphones. There are really two ways to experience VR on phones: Gear VR and Google Cardboard. If you have a modern Samsung smartphone, Gear VR is the way to go. Created in collaboration with Oculus, the Gear VR has access to a wide variety of exclusive games, apps, videos, and more. There’s also the video-focused Samsung’s Milk VR, where new VR videos are released each week and users can upload their own content. Because it’s only compatible with the 2015 Samsung Galaxy line, creators can build more hardware-intensive experiences.
Samsung Gear VR
Those without a Samsung phone can turn to Google Cardboard, which is a platform rather than a device. As a cardboard box with some basic optics, a variety of companies have made their own Cardboard-compatible “headsets.” As such, they can be had very cheaply. (It’s worth noting here why, in part, VR has become so much cheaper: These modern devices are designed to work around the failings of lesser optics. Software warps and distorts the original image in a way that is “corrected” by the lenses during playback. It’s genius.) And Google Cardboard apps are compatible with a much wider variety of devices, though that means many of them are more limited in scope. Even so, there’s some cool stuff out there, like the video-specific apps from companies like 360Heros and Jaunt, both of which are at the forefront of VR content creation.
VR is also working its way into the news: The New York Times recently released its NYT VR app, accompanied by a Cardboard headset sent out to the paper’s subscribers, which hopes to provide a different way to experience news stories. The Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, and others have all put out VR content of their own, as well.
Content from The New York Times NYTVR App
But even if you don’t feel like picking up a Gear VR or Google Cardboard-style headset, you can still get a taste of these experiences. Head over to YouTube on your computer and you can still check out their 360-degree videos—a directional pad in the corner of the image allows you to look around. On a phone, the accelerometer is used to track the motion instead. You’re not in the different world the way you are with a VR headset; rather, you’re looking through a window into it. It’s a different effect, but it’s still very cool. Some videos, such as a set of behind-the-scenes looks at Fox’s TV show Scream Queens, work in both VR and as regular 360-degree videos. Google also has its own app, Spotlight Stories, which has its own, mostly animated, narrative videos.
YouTube Spotlight Series 360-Degree Immersive Video
The only live-action film on Spotlight Stories—a project by director Justin Lin, director of four The Fast & The Furious movies—is heavy on iffy green screen and subpar CGI, but it’s also an early experiment and, with bigger budgets, there is the potential for some seriously cool work. The cinematographer in me loves these sorts of videos, in particular, because I can frame the action as I please. You may like your image centered and keep everything as symmetrical as possible, while I might cant the angle and leave negative space to create a different effect. It’s not going to replace the appeal of decisively framed cinema anytime soon (I hope it never does) but, in short bursts, it’s fascinating.
It will be fascinating to see how promotional experiences change in this new world. Even if you don’t want to immerse yourself in a VR ecosystem, there are an increasing number of ways to get a taste of their capabilities. At the Games for Change Festival, in New York, in April 2015, filmmakers and activists brought along headsets and short videos to promote their own work, or a bigger cause. Tommy Hilfiger recorded their 2015 catwalk show in VR and brought the video to select stores, letting customers try on the headsets and experience it for themselves. I have even seen a mall pop-up booth claiming to be a “Virtual Amusement Park” that was just a pair of leather chairs with Oculus Rift Developer Kits attached to them.
This is all just the beginning. Not only is Oculus planning to release the Rift in the first half of 2016, so are Sony, with their PlayStation 4 companion PlayStation VR (formerly Project Morpheus), and HTC, with the Steam collaboration known as the “Vive.” With them, the floodgates will truly open. For consumers, me included, it’s an extremely exciting time to be a part of this space.
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