Reality: now showing on a headset near you

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By Sphumelele Ndlovu, Meagan du Plooy and Keegan Frances

Virtual Reality? Oh, that’s mind-bending graphics incorporated in action-packed video games, right?. Wrong. According to Andy Mathis, head of business development and partnerships at Oculus, it is so much more.

Virtual Reality is an immersive experience able to transport its users to specific places or periods in history. With VR, users can walk with a dinosaur or experience traditions in North Korea completely forgetting where they physically are (this can often lead to a few scrapes and bruises). VR can even be used in a journalism classroom – provided a developer can develop the software for it. And what about people with visual impairments? Mathis made it clear that the system was currently unable to accommodate the blind. However, VR has been used to help correct lazy eye syndrome.

During his Scifest lecture on Thursday, Mathis also mentioned the many employment opportunities in software development for VR systems.

For those who already have some command of software development, the codes are open for use and some of them are available for development. Those without any coding skills can get their foot in the door via a Bachelor of Sciences in Software Development or Information Systems (at Rhodes University, the minimum requirements for a BSc in Software Development and Information Systems are 45 admission points and a 70% in maths).

Virtual Reality can also be used for educational purposes. For example, a science curriculum can be created in Virtual Reality to transport learners to various worlds and allow them to explore the wonders of the universe. As studies have shown, learners tend to grasp concepts easier when they are involved in the learning process. This is what VR allows for.

VR also has a place in entertainment. Oculus Venues is one product using VR technology to experience live music events on a whole new level. One could view a Beyoncé concert in real time from the comfort of one’s own living room.

While the technology has a wide range of applications, it is not without issues. During the presentation, Mathis spoke about the Samsung Galaxy Gear saying: “While we are proud of the product we designed in collaboration with Samsung, we came to realise that cellular devices were not wholly suited to VR systems.” The system’s application to computers is also far from perfect as one needs to have a costly high-end PC.

To help bridge the digital divide, Oculus is developing the Oculus Go. “It will be a standalone device which will not require a PC or phone to function,” said Mathis. He does expect it to cost about $199 though, once completed.

Another pertinent issue is the dangers associated with the use of VR by children. In particular, dissenters query the impact of the device on a child’s cognitive development and sight. Said Mathis: “We tend to err on the side of caution. That is why there is an age limit of 13 and above.” Some also question the impact VR systems might have on semi-skilled and unskilled labour. But Mathis was optimistic: “As we speak VR systems are being used to teach people a number of technical and non-technical skills. As such the opportunity for these individuals to reskill is vast.”

 

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