What's a few thousand miles between friends? Facebook and Samsung have teamed up to use today's tech to answer that question. Virtual Reality (VR), is a computer generated world, interacted with through immersive multimedia. The concept of VR really took flight in the 1990's, but at the time the tech available just wasn't up to creating a marketable experience. The dream of VR, however, never died completely. As it turns out, all the VR diehards had to do in order to deliver on the promise of immersive digital worlds, was wait 25 years for smartphones to be invented, popularized, and iterated.
That's right, Smartphones it seems will be the vessel which most of us use to experience modern virtual reality for the first time. It has been more than a year and a half since Facebook showed the world just how important it deemed VR with the surprise purchase of Oculus VR for US $2 billion. Oculus Rift VR headset started with a now famous run on Kickstarter. The company was able to show to the public how the computing power and screen resolution on smartphones and tablets have advanced to the point that they could power a VR headset.
Over the past few years, just about every major company in Silicon Valley has had some foray into VR or the conceptually similar Augment Reality (AR). Last year Google introduced Cardboard, an actual piece of cardboard that could be folded to create a wearable headset to mount your smartphone. Samsung took the production line approach, and created a more comfortable device that had some integrated hardware to create a better experience, but relied on specific Galaxy series smartphones to operate. To be the first out with a major consumer level VR unit, Samsung collaborated with Oculus VR, who has yet to release a consumer version of their own device. The Samsung Gear VR was released to mixed, but overall good, reviews. The biggest downside being that it is only an option to those who own one of only a select few Samsung Galaxy smartphones.
To show off the capabilities of the Gear VR, Samsung and Oculus designed a custom app for viewing videos in VR called Oculus Cinema. Running the app with the headset on, it creates the immersive 360-degree experience of sitting in an actual movie theater. The participant can look around the theater, see other seats and d©cor, and watch an actual video play on the movie screen. For many that virtual movie theater, and the various demos other companies show off with their own VR products, have been eye-openers to the potential this technology offers.
Last week Oculus released a new app for the Gear VR that is similar in practice to Oculus Cinema, but on an entirely different scale when it comes to the scope of future implementation. Oculus Social alpha is the first step toward a future where we visit, and interact with other people from the confines of our homes, or classrooms, or offices. The app at this stage is very simple, avatars (the thing that represents you in the digital world) are no more than floating heads, and like Oculus Cinema, the concept is centered around viewing a video in virtual space. The difference this time is that you are not alone. Other bodiless heads hover nearby, and like your avatar, these are controlled by other real life people, also wearing a Samsung Gear VR. Currently, functionality within the VR environment is limited, and your only viewing options come from Twitch and Vimeo. You can chat with your viewing companions, though, and that is the concept worth latching on to. Meeting and hanging out in a shared digital space has long been the promise of VR. It offers the possibility of spending time with friends and family who live great distances apart. It could revolutionize business meetings and job training. The possibilities are so vast, it is astounding. And right now we are witnessing the first baby steps of a brand new social monster, unlike anything we have seen before.