10 mind-blowing Oculus Rift experiments that reveal VR's practical potential

We look at some global examples of virtual reality in action

When the first Oculus dev kits went out to backers last spring, it was a novelty. Now it's a technology worth $2 billion or more.
When the first Oculus dev kits went out to backers last spring, it was a novelty. Now it's a technology worth $2 billion or more.

The Oculus Rift's official consumer release is still months away, but that hasn't stopped developers from getting excited about the virtual reality headset and forging deeply innovative software that takes full advantage of VR's breathtaking potential.

And it's not just gaming developers whipping up mind-blowing projects, either.

Although it was originally created for games, the Rift headset is already promising to transform more practical fields like tourism, filmmaking, medicine, architecture, space exploration, and the battlefield. Even the basic way we perceive ourselves is up for grabs when the lines between physical and virtual begin to blur.

Here are ten of the coolest Oculus Rift experiments that have nothing whatsoever to do with gaming... and everything to do with changing the world we live in.

Driving a tank

The Norwegian Army is experimenting with using the Oculus Rift to drive tanks, as reported by Teknisk Ukeblad, a Norwegian engineering journal. That country's army took four cameras with spherical lenses and placed them strategically on the outside of a tank. Then the driver sat inside wearing the Oculus Rift headset. Special software would convert the spherical images from the camera back to a normal view.

In the video above, the setup gave the driver a 185-degree overview of each side of the vehicle and allowed her to change views just by turning her head. It also has other advantages, such as a heads-up display showing vehicle tilt, speed, and orientation. And if the tank had to close all its hatches the Rift would still make it possible to see outside the vehicle from inside the fully armored enclosure.

The Norwegian Army, obviously, envisions using a system like this in battle conditions where it's not possible for the driver to have their head outside of the hatch.

Rift on a wire

One of the more fascinating aspects of virtual reality is just how easily the mind can be fooled by your senses. London-based production company Inition displayed that to great effect with a VR balance beam experiment at the 2013 Digital Shoreditch Festival.

Many participants were unable to overcome a sense of vertigo as they tried to walk across a beam hanging between two buildings - even though people knew they were in a room with a proper floor and not actually on a beam many feet up in the air. A fan blowing wind in their face didn't help.

Virtual Cape

Hoping to encourage visitors to South Africa, the country's tourism agency worked with virtual reality specialists Visualise to create a virtual tour of the country. The program allows people to experience highlights of a trip to South Africa, such as visits to markets and bars, shark diving, kitesurfing, and paragliding.

Oculus Rift as a promotional tool could go well beyond allowing people to see how cool a specific destination is, as the site Future Travel Experience recently spelled out. Imagine, for example, using a Rift onboard an airplane flying towards your destination. Instead of watching a movie, you pass a few hours on the flight deciding which attractions you want to see by experiencing them before you get there.

Rift med

The Moveo Foundation, an organization dedicated to advancing technology for orthopedic surgery, created a training project that lets medical students get a first-person view of an actual surgery.

In June, the group used a dual camera system attached to a doctor's head at the European Georges Pompidou Hospital in Paris to capture a hip surgery as it happened.

Then the recording was optimized for the Rift, allowing students to look around the operating room. Students can view the surgery through the VR headset, or turn their head to see what the nurses are doing.

Moveo hopes the experiment can train future surgeons and also help experienced doctors learn new techniques by stepping into the virtual shoes of another surgeon.

Rifts in space

NASA has a few interesting ideas about how the Rift could be used by astronauts. The space agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) last December released a video showing how it was using a Kinect 2 paired with an Oculus Rift to create a system for maneuvering robots in space. The Kinect was used for body tracking, and the Rift would give the astronaut a first-person view of the robot's environment.

The second concept is to use the Rift as a therapeutic tool for astronauts on long-haul flights to destinations such as Mars. Astronauts on a mission to the red planet would have to endure traveling with others in a small, cramped space.

The Rift would reduce the stress of that environment with a makeshift "holodeck" that would allow astronauts to relax. Imagine, for example, astronauts strapping on a Rift headset, getting up on a treadmill and going for an early morning run in Seattle's Discovery Park, all from a room inside a space shuttle hurtling through space.

PTSD Treatment

The Rift may one day put gamers right in the middle of action games like Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty, but it can also return real-life war veterans to the battlefield. Believe it or not, that's a good thing.

Albert "Skip" Rizzo - a psychologist and director for medical virtual reality at the University of Souther California's Institute for Creative Technologies - is using the Oculus Rift to help treat vets with post-traumatic stress disorder. The idea is to immerse veterans in stressful situations similar to what they experienced to help them confront traumatic memories.

"I have no question that Oculus will revolutionize virtual reality for clinical purposes," Rizzo told The Verge in 2013.

Boy-girl

Ever wondered what it would be like to experience life as a member of the opposite sex? An interdisciplinary group at the University of Pompeu in Barcelona tried to do just that.

The research project called The Machine To Be Another used a set-up where a man and a woman each wear an Oculus Rift headset as well as a camera strategically placed to capture a first-person view.

Each first-person view would go to the opposite person's Rift headset. So the man looks down and sees the woman's body and vice versa. The two users synchronize their actions so that it feels like they're actually living in the other person's body.

"Deep inside you know it's not your body, but you feel like it is," Philippe Bertrand, a Digital Arts student and co-founder of the group told Wired in February.

Rift Architecture

Architects may soon be using the Rift as a kind of sanity check on their designs. McBride Design teamed up with IrisVR to create a platform called Rift Architecture, according to Architizer.com. The idea is to let architects create their building plans, upload them into the Oculus Rift-based platform and then walk through the building or landscape and experience their designs before pouring a single slab of concrete.

Third-person IRL

A team from mepi.pl, a Polish language technology educational site, recently took a popular concept from video games and applied it to real life with the Third-Person Perspective Augmented Experience.

First, you slap on a backpack containing a PC, an Arduino board, and a set of cameras suspended on a pole that reaches several feet above you. Then, wearing the Rift headset, you just walk around. Instead of seeing what's in front of you, you're fed images from the cameras, giving a bird's eye view of your surroundings similar to the third-person view used in video games like Tomb Raider or World of Warcraft.

The experimental project was put together in only a few days and the software couldn't automatically move the third-person cameras based on head movements. Instead, the group used a small hand-held controller to look in different directions.

The project was an entry in Intel's recent Make It Wearable Challenge. The project, while interesting, was not a finalist.

VR cinema

Since the Oculus Rift was originally conceived of as an entertainment device, the headset is right at home with movies and films. There are several Rift apps that let you watch a movie as if you're actually sitting in a movie theater. Netflix engineers have played with the Rift, and the VR headset was also used as a promotional tool for the new movie Interstellar.

Others such as production company Condition One are trying to create an entirely new kind of first-person film experience. The company's first effort for the Rift, Zero Point, was released in late October. The 15-minute film transports you to different settings that is more technology demonstration than first-person narrative, according to reviews.

Another studio, Janwix, just relelased a feature-length 3D horror film for the Rift called Banshee Chapter: Oculus Rift Edition.

Rift owners can download Zero Point for £10 on Steam for Windows. A free demo is also available. Banshee Chapter is available for free on Oculus VR's site for Mac only.

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