Saturday, September 5, 2015

Family Tech: Virtual reality gadgets on the market, so just imagine - September 4, 2015

I looked to the left and was surprised to see a fighter jet there. Even more astonishingly, I looked up and found another fighter just above my head, only feet away from my own aircraft. A voice startled me and I looked behind me to realize I wasn’t alone in the plane; there was a pilot behind me.

The Family Tech gadget budget is – shall we say – “restrained” so I wasn’t flying my new F-35, but instead my $20 Google Cardboard.

Virtual reality, or VR, may finally be poised for the home.

VR goggles let you see different views as you turn your head. Imagine you are wearing VR goggles and it appears to you that you are at the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum near Dulles. In front of you is a big silver-colored airplane. If you turn to the right, you see more airplanes. Look up and you see a variety of planes hanging over your head. Look down and you see the floor. While it’s not as good as being there, you get a sense of what it is like to be there.

Imagine that kind of view if it was dynamic. Games will be able to create constantly changing scenes around you.

For a race car simulation game, it will mean you can look up at the mirror, look beside you and look around as you would in a real car.

For a combat game, you’ll see your squad around you. Looking up you’ll see a sniper in the window or a plane about to strafe your position.

And they have non-game uses. Therapists use them to help people overcome phobias. It’s better to introduce people to virtual heights gradually using VR.

Imagine the uses in education. A virtual planetarium controlled by the individual student, for example. The military has been using VR for training for years.

Science and engineering can use VR to explore and educate on complex concepts.

Imagine previewing a home to buy using VR.

Facebook believes in VR. In March 2014, it purchased Oculus Rift for $2 billion.

Oculus is to be released in 2016. It will be combined with a wireless controller so people can interact with the environment as well as see it.

Shortly after finishing our gaming PC build, the beautiful 34-inch curved monitor we couldn’t afford dropped in price a bit. I told my son we should start putting money aside and with more price drops, we might be able to afford one in time.

Instead, he pointed out that by the time we could afford the monitor, VR would probably be the way to go for games.

Valve, a provider of downloadable PC games, has its own VR headset coming, from Taiwanese phone manufacturer HTC.

Pricing and delivery dates are up in the air for both devices but might be in early 2016. Oculus has said that the cost of a PC supporting the Rift, and the Rift itself, will be about $1,500, making some believe the Rift by itself will be about $300.

Others are producing augmented reality goggles instead of virtual reality. Microsoft’s Hololens is one. It shows you what is truly around you, but overlays information. It is not unlike the view you get now in a video game where a character’s name, power, etc. hover over a character.

I’m more excited about augmented reality for non-gaming uses. Imagine walking through a trade show wearing glasses designed with augmented reality. If someone you know approaches you, it could use facial recognition to remind you of their name, job, when you last met, etc.

CastAR, a pending AR solution is getting a lot of attention, and funding from Andy Rubin, creator of the Android Operating System. A video showing its potential is on this week’s link post at

I try to write in this column only about things than can help families now, but I wanted to touch on this since you will be hearing a lot about VR and AR in the coming year.

A couple months after Facebook spent the $2 billion for Oculus Rift, Google gave away VR goggles to developers at their Google IO conference in June 2014. Google Cardboard is a small cardboard box with some special lenses in it. You slide in your Android or iPhone running the free Cardboard app and it gives you VR.

Sensors already in the phone know when you have turned your head, or raised or lowered it. What you see changes as you move.

Some Android phones let you shoot photospheres, the 360-degree photo I mentioned. The one I described above is actually made at the Air and Space Museum and is on the link post.

Youtube has a 360-degree video channel you can watch within Cardboard too.

Links to all that, and where you can buy Cardboard for $5 and up, are on the link post.

Links for this column.

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