The virtual reality revolution arrives in Boston

Brian Ornstedt showed off a swiveling chair that connects into the Oculus and eliminates associated dizziness (Photo by Kyle Alspach)
Brian Ornstedt showed off a swiveling chair that connects into the Oculus and eliminates associated dizziness (Photo by Kyle Alspach)

It’s been about two decades since virtual reality arrived as a major area for technically-adept tinkerers to explore. They’re still tinkering. But it’s a different story now: The arrival of the Oculus Rift, and its $2 billion vote of confidence from Facebook, suggests that VR is finally on a path to the mainstream.

That was the sentiment at last night’s Boston Virtual Reality meetup group, at hack/reduce in Cambridge, where a handful of local VR developers showed off their creations to several dozen curious members of the public. Users came seeking the chance to try out early technology that puts you inside a virtual world, with the ability to look around in all directions as if you’re really there (the second-generation Oculus “developer kit” began shipping this week).

Jeffrey Jacobson, who organized the event and heads nonprofit research group PublicVR in Boston, said he’s been involved in virtual reality work since the beginning 20 years ago, and seen the different waves of rise and decline in interest.

“Now it’s happening. This time it’s different,” Jacobson said. “And it’s all because the Oculus is $300.”

While many in the tech world panned the acquisition of Oculus by Facebook earlier this year, Jacobson was glad to see the move. “They’ll be pouring a lot of money into it,” he said.

Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg reiterated his commitment to the Oculus during a conference call with analysts. “We’re investing in the next set of computing platforms. [It’s] totally a long-term play,” he said.

Experimentation

And from the set of VR creations on display last night, it’s clear the Oculus has spawned the sort of experimentation crucial to any new tech platform.

Programmer Michael Schenck showed off “Lost Loot,” a treasure hunting/diving/island exploration game that he began developing during a recent “VR jam.”

Schenck said he was inspired after playing “Half-Life 2,” a first-person shooter game adapted for the Oculus. “Seeing these places while being inside of them, instead of looking through the monitor, blew me away,” he said. “That told me this is going to be the future of gaming.”

VR and the are not restricted to gaming purposes, however. Cambridge-based VT MÄK, for instance, has developed a virtual reality simulation for the Oculus for use in military training, which was on display last night.

Challenges

There is still a lot to be done, of course. Notably, the Oculus is known to cause dizziness and nausea in some users due to the fact that your brain tells you that you’re moving, when you’re actually not.

One of the projects on display last night was focused on just that: Brian Ornstedt showed off a swiveling chair that connects into the Oculus, which lets you move around in a game by moving around in the chair. Ornstedt said he isn’t looking to commercialize the chair, which he built for less than $100, and expects that the Oculus and other VR headset developers will eventually solve the nausea issue.

Overall, VR still remains in the prototype stage, but isn’t likely to get stuck there this time. “This is a primitive version of what we’re going to have,” Schenck said.

Kyle Alspach has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since 2005 and was one of the original staff writers at BetaBoston.
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