Models showed off the Oculus Rift before a fashion event in London in March. Models showed off the Oculus Rift before a fashion event in London in March. Models showed off the Oculus Rift before a fashion event in London in March. (Photo: Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images for Westfield)

What the heck is an Oculus Rift?

Facebook's futuristic goggles bring virtual reality to the mainstream and research community.

The Internet was aflutter over the news that the highly anticipated virtual reality (VR) goggles known as the Oculus Rift will go on sale in early 2016.

So, um, what exactly is the Oculus Rift? That's an excellent question. It looks kind of like ski goggles on steroids. Put them on, and you're instantly transported to another environment. Some early testers, for example, were transported to an amusement park where they found themselves barreling along on a high-speed roller coaster ride.

“Some people try to compare the Rift’s VR experience to a 3D movie,” says Dov Katz, a Tel Aviv University alumnus who helped develop the headset. “While there are elements of 3D involved, the effect and experience are far different, because in the movies, the effect is external – meaning that you are just watching it – while with VR you are totally immersed in what is going on.”

Last year, Facebook acquired the company that makes the Oculus Rift glasses. Why would the social media giant want to get into the virtual reality world? Think about it this way: Facebook is in the communication business. Right now, people can share status updates and instant message with one another. Facebook even added Skype-like video chatting capabilities to its platform recently.

But imagine taking that communication one step further. Imagine donning special glasses and being in the same room with your Facebook friends, where you can talk to them face-to-face, in an immersive experience. Experts think this technology, which helps bridge the geographic divide in our global community, could be a true turning point in communication.

"I actually think that VR is maybe the most transformative technology of my lifetime," says Michael Abrash, chief scientist at Oculus.

While we everyday Americans will have to wait a few more months to get their hands on an Oculus Rift, the company has already sent out prototypes to video game and app developers so they can work on creating virtual environments for the goggles.

A video gaming fan play games with an Oculus Rift during the International Games Week Berlin trade fair in April.A video gaming fan plays games with an Oculus Rift during the International Games Week Berlin trade fair in April. (Photo: Axel Schmidt/Getty Images)

Another group of people who have already tried out the device are university professors, who have been studying virtual reality issues for years in high-tech laboratories. The Oculus Rift, along with similar devices like Microsoft's HoloLens, will make their research more portable and widespread.

Professor Jaime Banks, a researcher in the Communication Studies Department at West Virginia University, organized a seminar last week to show her colleagues the potential of Oculus Rift. "Responses ranged from nausea to excitement," she told From The Grapevine. Banks is excited that Facebook is making this technology more accessible to researchers and the lay public alike. "With the same stroke, virtual reality has the potential to become part of everyday life, and we'll have the opportunities as researchers to better understand the role it may play in contemporary culture."

So what are they researching? Here's just a sampling:

Therapies: People with phobias or PTSD can go through exposure therapy in a more comfortable environment. Doctors are using virtual reality devices to help amputees adjust to using prosthetic limbs. Research shows that burn victims have reduced pain when they go into a snowy virtual world. Psychologists at Georgia State University were able to use virtual environments to help people get over their fear of public speaking.

Distance learning: One of the top complaints of current distance learning is that both teachers and students don't feel a real sense of place. Students often appear as mere avatars on a screen. There's little if any interplay and discussion. Now imagine if all the students had on an Oculus Rift and are instantly transported to a room where they can see and interact with others in their class.

Training: What if you could teach a teenager to drive in a safer virtual environment, before putting them on an actual road with other drivers? Professions that require skilled precision – like surgeons and pilots – also use virtual reality as a training ground.

Behavior modification: Our virtual experiences can affect our real-world behavior. Scientists at Stanford University discovered that people who have the experience of cutting down a tree in a virtual world, come out more likely to recycle paper.

"Oculus Rift has a lot of value for virtualizing social scenarios," says Banks. At the university presentation she organized, one professor brainstormed that it could be useful in researching how people react to bullying – without actually having someone encounter people being bullied. Rather, it would merely be a simulation, allowing for more ethical research.

"Different people are going to be able to pull different bits of magic out of this," says John Carmack, the chief technology officer of Oculus, "and that brightens my day."

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