The Oculus Rift: virtual reality is no longer a joke

Cant get over how inexpensive the headset is now, an incredible deal for a top-end product!

The decades most exciting development in computer hardware looks a little like a fat black envelope stuck to a pair of ski goggles, and I had one strapped to my face two months ago as I sat at a desk in the Earls Court Exhibition Centre preparing to fly a Spitfire under a bridge.

Headphones over my ears replaced the thumping bass of the surrounding trade show with the spluttery growl of a Merlin engine. Looking down, I saw a pair of khakied knees and a gloved hand gripping a control yoke; above and to either side, the sun glittered through the cockpit canopy. As I flipped the aircraft into a turn and dive, my senses insisted that I was soaring, upside down, under an iron bridge and into a canyon. But my body and brain remained obstinately upright in a chair in west London, at the glorious mercy of a technology that promises to bring back that most laughable of Nineties computing obsessions: virtual reality.

This device is called the Oculus Rift, and it has come a long way since 2011, when Palmer Luckey, a 19-year-old Californian student, built the prototype from scavenged parts in his parents garage. Luckey was an enthusiastic collector of old VR hardware the clunky headsets that had enjoyed a brief tenure in Nineties amusement arcades and had long dreamt of bringing back the technology in a useful form.

But despite the colourful cyber-predictions of films such as Lawnmower Man, there were good reasons that the virtual reality craze had fizzled out by the millennium. The headsets were too heavy to wear for long, and immersion in the blocky graphics of these early virtual worlds came at a price: a stiff neck, motion sickness and the feeling of wading through treacle.

By 2011, however, the magic combination of accurate motion-sensing with lightweight, high-resolution displays no longer seemed so far off. As Luckey realised, the technology was by then integrated into most decent smartphones. So his prototype Rift used the equivalent of a large smartphone screen to display offset moving images, one for each eye, which the brain combined into an illusion of 3D depth. Head movements were tracked with phone-equivalent gyroscopes and accelerometers, adjusting the view so the user could look freely around a 3D world.

Two years on, Luckeys company Oculus VR is still piggybacking on vicious competition in the smartphone market, as its product lead Joseph Chen freely acknowledges.

Those guys are tearing each other apart trying to get the next best thing, he says. That has basically driven the costs down to where theyre affordable: displays and sensors that used to be hundreds of dollars now cost pennies. Oculus charges just $300 (180) for a low resolution developer kit a kit for companies interested in developing software for the device and has shipped more than 40,000 worldwide, the biggest deployment of virtual reality headsets in history. It has raised $91million (55.5 million) in investment funding and done this without actually having a product on the market: you cant buy it in shops until next year.

The excitement surrounding the Oculus was palpable at the Eurogamer Expo, the games show where I tried out its second-generation prototype. This is understandable: to many enthusiasts, the prospect of stepping wholesale into a virtual fantasy world fulfils one of the oldest promises of the medium.

An example of the view using an Oculus Rift

But theres more to this technology than gaming. Among the demonstrations Chen showed me was a London tourism experience, built from 360-degree camera views of locations in the capital by the media agency Visualise. The viewer begins perched on top of the London Eye wheel, staring out over the capital, and can beam into various 3D-modelled locations across town London Zoo, the Gherkin, Piccadilly Circus by a shift of visual focus.

Another demonstration by Arch Virtual, a business that creates 3D software for a wide range of clients, offered a virtual tour of an architects concept house. Using a controller, I was able to walk wherever I liked in the building. The sense of inhabiting real space in these demonstrations was astonishing.

Jon Brouchoud, the Wisconsin-based architect who runs Arch Virtual, says that using the Rift developer kit transformed the way he designs. Any time youre looking at an architectural illustration projected onto a screen its distorted, he tells me. Theres a natural distortion based on the way 3D maps onto a 2D surface. Put the same environment in the Oculus Rift and its completely different. Being able to stand inside a space, go back to the drawing board and then stand inside it again completely changes the way you design a building. If this isnt the game-changer for architecture, I dont know what is.

Arch Virtual, Brouchoud says, has also taken on several secret projects for medical clients. VR technology has already been used to aid neurological recovery from trauma, as well as to treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, post-stroke rehabilitation and phantom limb syndrome.

Andrew Poulter, an expert in computer science and simulation at the MoDs Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, envisages still other applications for the technology hinted at by the Rift. In the past two years the US army has spent $57million (35million) on an immersive training simulator called the Dismounted Soldier Training System, which tracks not just head movement but limb positioning and weapon movements.

In Britain, Poulter explains, head-mounted VR technology is still only being used experimentally, within a research context, although his lab has been looking closely at developer versions of the Rift.

A visitor to a trade show tries out the Oculus Rift

A good deal of British military training, Poulter explains, is still done with on-screen computer programs. But the Oculus Rift, he says, represents a new class of hardware with real potential. And it is games technology that now sets the trend for the defence industry, not the other way around. The defence budgets of even the largest countries are relatively small compared to the massive budgets that the entertainment industry has.

Its easy to forget that none of this technology is really available yet. Oculus is shipping only to developers with the technical know-how to plumb the depths of the software, while many of its prospective rivals remain shrouded in mystery. A few weeks ago, Sony filed a patent related to a head-mounted display, seeming to lend credence to rumours that it plans to launch a VR headset in 2014 for the PlayStation 4.

But the competition is certainly gathering. A device called the CastAR, which overlays 3D images onto a real-world view, recently completed a successful run on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter and has entered production. On the morning that I sat down to write this piece, news broke that another Oculus rival, the gloriously sci-fi sounding Avegant Glyph, will take to Kickstarter in January: it promises to project 3D images onto the human retina and fold up into a pair of headphones when youre done with it.

The team at Oculus, meanwhile, promises a further revolution in display technology when it exhibits a new prototype at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, and says it will have goggles in the hands of consumers by the end of the year. Looking forward into this immersive future, one is tempted to agree with the 90-year-old lady whose experience with the Oculus Rift has attracted more than two million viewers on YouTube.

This is something else, she exclaims raptly, clutching the visor to her face with both hands. Am I still sitting where I was? Holy mackerel!

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iHome iB75 Earpiece

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audioIt seems silly to hold exercise-focused earphones to a different set of standards than regular earphonesafter all, if the pair sounds good, it could be your all-the-time pair, not just the one you take to the gym. That said, the iHome iB75, a $99.99 (direct) Bluetooth in-ear option, seems particularly suited for the gym, not only because of its water-resistant design, but because its sound signature seems to be purposefully sculpted to bring out the bass and the beats of your exercise playlist. The iB75 could use more treble to balance out the mix, but it offers a secure fit and plenty of controls to manage your mobile device wirelessly during your workout.

The iB75’s design is intended for exercise, and is thus ruggedized to a certain extent, while remaining lightweight. The black earpieces house multiple controls, and if there’s any complaint, it would be that the controls are very tiny, and not the easiest to memorizebut the upside is, of course, the flexibility to control music and take calls with ease, and wirelessly. A red cable runs behind the head, connecting the earpieces to each other, and silicon eartips and fin combinations ensure an extremely secure fit while you’re moving around.

All of the controls are situated on the right earpiece. It has dedicated Volume up/down and Track forward/backward buttons, as well as a Bluetooth pairing button that’s also the Play/Pause and Call answer/end control. The volume controls on the iB75 work independently of the controls on your sound source. It’s unfortunately pretty easy to accidentally press one control when you meant to press anotherskip a track when attempting to adjust the volume, for instance. This is both because you’re blindly navigating the controls, as with any in-ear Bluetooth pair, but also because there are controls on both the top and bottom of the right earpiece. You might accidentally press a control on the bottom panel when placing your thumb and forefinger on the earpieces to make a selection. So, it takes a bit of getting used to, but the inclusion of more controls is always a plusit’s just too bad that some of them couldn’t have been placed on the left earpiece.iHome iB75 inline

The microphone and the micro-USB connection (which has a rubber cover) are also located on the right earpiece. The iB75 ships with a USB charging cable, three pairs of silicon eartips, three pairs of ear fins for a stabilized fit, and a drawstring carrying pouch. iHome estimates a battery life of about 8 hours talk time, 7 hours for music playback, and 100 hours for standby power, but your results will vary depending on how loudly you listen to your tunes.

The pairing process with an iPhone 5s was straightforward and easy. Like most Bluetooth earphones, the annoyance of a flashing blue light will be invisible to you, but in full view for anyone near you whenever you’re paired.

Performance
On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the iB75 doesn’t distort, even at top (and unsafe) listening levels on both the earphones and the sound source. Lovers of massive, booming bass might be thrilled by the sound signature hereit’s quite powerfulbut if you like some crispness with your booming lows, or you’re seeking a more flat-response pair, you’ll want to look elsewhere. This is clearly an earphone pair meant to accentuate the lows in songs to motivate your workout, not a pair intended for critical listening.

This is immediately apparent when listening to Bill Callahan’s “Drover.” His baritone vocals on this track are given plenty of extra low-end presence, but they lack any real high-mid edge, and the track sounds muddy as a result. The drums on this track also receive a heavy extra helping of bass, and the result is a very unnatural sounding mix. As I said, however, this isn’t a pair designed for analyzing the finer points of the Callahan catalogueit’s designed to bring out the thumping bass lines and beats in music you’re likely to listen to when working out. So if you happen to listen to classical music or folk while you exercise, you’re going to want to find a different pair.

On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the kick drum loop gets a huge dollop of added bass, and the sub-bass synth hits that accentuate the beat are also quite intense through the iB75. Even bass lovers might wish the beat had a bit more high-mid, treble-focused presence to it, howeverthe track sounds powerful, for sure, but a bit muffled.

If you’re seeking a brighter or more balanced mix for your Bluetooth workout experience, consider the Sennheiser MM 100$118.05 at Amazonit’s on-ear rather than in-ear, but ideal for the gym. If you need to stick with an in-ear option, the JayBird BlueBuds X$149.60 at Amazon is a more balanced in-ear option. If you’re primary concern is the exercise-friendly aspect of the design, and you don’t need Bluetooth, the Sennheiser CX 685 SPORTS$54.18 at Amazon is a great option in this price range. And finally, if you’re just looking for a cheap Bluetooth set, the Outdoor Technology DJ Slims is another on-ear pair (in-ears tend to be pricier), but it delivers laudable audio for its low price. For $100, the iHome iB75 delivers thunderous lows without distorting, and allows for full playback control and track navigation. There’s nothing it gets wrong, really, except that it could use more treble in its mix, but certain bass lovers will find exactly what they’re looking for in this water-resistant option.