TIME Virtual Reality

The Best Virtual Reality Headset Goes on Sale Early Next Year

Oculus Rift
Oculus VR Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift has put a release date on the commercial version of its device

The long-awaited commercial version of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset will begin shipping to customers in the first quarter of 2016, Oculus VR announced Wednesday. The Rift, which has been widely praised for its high level of immersion, has so far only been available in a developer’s version. Oculus will begin accepting pre-orders for the device later this year.

Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion last March in a move both surprising and a sign that virtual reality is one of the next-big ticket bets in Silicon Valley. While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has long-term plans to develop Oculus into a “communication platform,” the Rift for now remains primarily focused on gaming experiences.

“It’s a system designed by a team of extremely passionate gamers, developers, and engineers to reimagine what gaming can be,” Oculus said in a blog post announcing the new shipping window.

Further details about the commercial version of Rift are expected to be announced at E3, an annual California gaming expo set for June 16-18.

Facebook is not the only tech giant investing in VR. Sony has a virtual reality headset called Morpheus in the works for PlayStation 4, while Microsoft is taking a slightly different tack with its augmented-reality headset HoloLens. HTC and Samsung are also working on virtual reality headsets, though the latter’s product is the result of a partnership with Oculus.

TIME technology

See How Virtual Reality Could Be the Future of Photojournalism

The Enemy, a virtual reality experience, puts you in the middle of a face-to-face encounter between combatants of opposing sides

At first, if it weren’t for the contraption that makes you look half-alien, half-astronaut, The Enemy, a virtual reality experience on show at the Tribeca Film Festival, would be akin to most exhibitions.

As you don the awkward oculus rift goggles and the backpack with the umbilical cord that ties you to the operating system, photos taken in the Palestinian Territories appear on opposing sides. As you would when touring a gallery, you approach either wall, focusing your attention on the scene depicted on the first image before moving on to the next. After a few moments, portraits of two adversaries, Abu Khaled, a garrison leader for the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Gilad, an IDF soldier, replace the depictions of everyday struggles. The two men don’t stay inanimate for long. At once, they take shape right in front of you, as sophisticated holograms answering questions about violence and peace.

The virtual conversation mirrors the interactions of an actual one. Come in too close to the simulated fighter, and they’ll draw back. Shift left or right and their gaze will follow you. Take a few step back and the volume of their voice weakens. After a few minutes, once the conversation is over, they fade away, leaving you alone in an empty room. At this point, removing the high-tech gear feels like waking up from an exceptionally vivid dream: you keep a distinct memory of the experience, yet are acutely aware that it was not real.

“I wanted to know what would happen if we took the likeness of the combatants I’ve photographed off the wall and breathed life into them,” says Karim Ben Khelifa, the mastermind behind The Enemy, which received funding and support from the Tribeca Film Institute’s New Media Fund. “How would people react? How would the public engage with them? And what impact would it have on their understanding or on how much they care?”

iThe Enemy/i, a virtual reality experience, puts you in the middle of a face-to-face encounter between combatants of opposing sides
Karim Ben KhelifaPhotography consultant Stephen Mayes testing The Enemy

For the better part of the last decade, the Tunisian photographer has dedicated himself to taking portraits of foes, especially those captive to entrenched conflicts, born with the hatred of the other, such as the Israeli-Palestinian hostilities or the India-Kashmir rift. Ben Khelifa sees it as a way to make the viewer – and, hopefully, bitter rivals – see the human being behind the fighter.

“Fundamentally, as journalists, we’ve always been trying to arouse empathy so that viewers will care for a situation happening miles from their home or to others,” he says. “When I began as a photographer, I wanted to work for the most renowned magazines in order to reach the largest audience and touch the most souls. With time, I grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of results.”

It turned out that three images in a newspaper spread were not enough to bring on change. Nor were a dozen shared online. Nor even fifty or sixty bound in a book or displayed as a show. “The challenge is to devise mechanisms that will grab and hold people’s attention long enough for you to tell a complex story,” he says, two years after he had his first virtual reality experience when he joined the MIT’s Open Documentary Lab.

Virtual reality, with its potential to offer a fully engrossing experience, might just be the way, he believes, though it’s not without obstacles. Producing such an elaborate project is exorbitantly costly and requires a wide set of skills. Over 45 people have worked on The Enemy – some of whom were dedicated to rendering exclusively and with utmost accuracy skin, hair or the slightest movement.

“It is essential to make the presence of the combatant feel as genuine as possible,” says Ben Khelifa. “By reacting to the viewer’s behavior, the hologram is acknowledging his presence, which in turn, creates a cognitive reaction of reciprocity. The hologram appears more real.” So much so, that though participants could walk through the simulated fighter, none of them has done so. During a demonstration in Paris, one woman fled when the combatants appeared, unsure of whether they were going to come after her, and another turned away from Abu Khaled. She wanted to hear what he had to say, but staring the masked man in the eyes made her uneasy.

Since starting the project two years ago and basing himself on the reactions of his users, Ben Khelifa has been tweaking and fine tuning the experience, keeping it as simple and intuitive as possible. “The difficulty is that I can’t fully control how everything unfolds,” he says. “Some of it is in the hand of the user who needs to feel some agency. There’s a fine balance that needs to be achieved between directing the viewer and giving him freedom. I could add an endless amount of sensorial experiences, but that could quickly become overwhelming.”

The prototype for The Enemy is currently on view at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of the Storyscapes programming alongside other interactive experiences. Ben Khelifa hopes that within the next 20 months he will be able to add seven more duos of fighters that will interact with the viewers in different manners. He will also spend that time devising ways to make it more accessible, creating a traveling installation that could welcome more than one person at a time as well as an app version to be experienced at home.

And, he has plans to record with more accuracy the reactions of participants, monitoring their heart rate, keeping track of how close or distant to each combatant they get and noting how attentive they are. “Analyzing people’s responses will give us insights that can help us become more effective storytellers,” he says.

Karim Ben Khelifa is a freelance photojournalist and a visiting scholar at the Open Documentary Lab at MIT in Cambridge. Follow him on Instagram @karimbenkhelifa and Twitter @kbenk. Follow The Enemy on Twitter @theenemyishere.

Laurence Butet-Roch is a freelance writer, photo editor and photographer based in Toronto, Canada. She is a member of the Boreal Collective.

TIME Video Games

Terrifying Simulation Shows You What It’s Like to Be Buried Alive

Sounds fun!

Now you can experience being buried alive — for fun.

A new virtual reality game called Taphobos — which comes from the word “taphophobia,” or fear of being buried alive — will be on display this week at EGX Rezzed in London, IGN reports.

One player lies in a coffin wearing an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and a microphone, and tries to direct a second player, who’s also wearing a headset, to find the coffin. The player who’s been “buried alive” uses maps on the inside of the coffin to guide the other player.

“This combination allows you to experience what it would be like if you were buried alive with just a phone call to the outside world,” the Taphobos website said.

Here’s a look at what the game looks like:

[IGN]

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TIME Virtual Reality

Here’s How Valve Cracked Virtual Reality’s Biggest Problem

This is shaping up to be the most important year in the tumultuous, not-quite-there-yet history of virtual reality.

A number of companies, from Facebook and Samsung to Google and Microsoft, are making significant pushes into the technology, which has been a mainstay of science fiction for decades but has largely failed to materialize as a viable consumer product. The latest piece of kit, the HTC Vive announced this weekend, is the product of a collaboration between the Taiwanese phone giant and Valve, the purveyor of the most important software distribution platform on the PC, Steam.

Virtual reality, or VR, has a long tortured history. Until three years ago, the technology was more or less moribund. Then Palmer Luckey (now 22), reignited interest with a series of prototypes for a new device called the Oculus Rift, which improved significantly on the old technology by taking advantage of advances in components for phones. His company, Oculus VR, was acquired by Facebook last year for $2 billion.

Most of Oculus’ advances, which are now being adopted or emulated by the likes of Sony and Samsung, are in how images are displayed to users wearing the headset. Long story short, a VR system has to display two sets of images—one for each eye—at very fast rates or the viewer will get nauseous.

But the HTC Vive, which the companies say will be available later this year, solves the next most vexing problems: once a viewer is seeing 3D space, how do they maneuver and manipulate the environment around them. Aside from content that is compatible with VR, these are the biggest outstanding questions. Once you’re there, what can you do and how do you do it?

Early development kits for the Oculus employ a standard console controller to move around, but that can be disorienting. Sony’s Morpheus prototype for the Playstation4 uses a set of controllers that look like ice cream cones with lightbulbs on top with similar results. And Microsoft’s recently unveiled HoloLens, which projects images onto the real world, uses hand gestures and arm motions. It’s still unclear which approach will win out.

HTC says its system will come with a base station that can track a user’s movements in 3D space. The company also hinted at a specific controller, perhaps a set of gloves, to enable users to manipulate virtual objects. Details are still scant, but this could solve the problems of mobility in a simulated 3D environment.

If Valve and HTC have indeed managed to do that, virtual reality may finally be ready for prime time.

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Here’s the $200 Competitor Oculus Should Worry About

Razer

You can even build one yourself if you're so inclined

Imagine a world in which virtual reality standards weren’t dominated by mega-billions corporations with sometimes controversial agendas. It’s not the world we live in, but PC peripheral-maker Razer wants us nudge us in that direction with something it’s dubbed OSVR, or open-source virtual reality.

On paper, OSVR is just what it sounds like: an idea for a standard that’s still just a proposition. Razer says it wants to “push the the VR gaming experience forward,” meaning it wants to plant its flag on challenge that matters most when you’re after winning hearts and wallets by delivering experiences and not just overhyped promises: developer support.

Razer

Here’s Razer’s take:

OSVR stands for Open Source Virtual Reality. It is an ecosystem designed from the ground up to set an open standard for Virtual Reality input devices, games and output with the sole goal of providing the best possible game experience in the Virtual Reality space. Supported by Industry Leaders and focused on gaming, the OSVR framework rallies gamers worldwide together to push the boundaries of VR-Gaming.

Razer’s basically pitching OSVR as an initiative to get the ball rolling on the software side, the idea being to support a flourishing ecology of hardware and software components in a harmonious VR ecosystem that even works hand in glove with Oculus Rift. If Oculus wants to be the iOS of VR, Razer’s positioning OSVR to be the Android.

Razer

If Razer’s pitch were just another rhetorical PR flourish, you might write it off as wishful thinking from a niche power player. But Razer appears to be doubling down with what it’s calling its OSVR Hacker Dev Kit, a bona fide wraparound VR headset accompanied by open-source software “that enables programming for any variety of VR technology.” What’s more, priced to move at $200, it could be $100 less expensive than Oculus’ Rift when it ships this year in June.

On paper, the headset sounds compelling: Razer claims it’s managed to work out an optics solution that reduced distortion to less than 13%, providing what the company calls “an almost perfect image.” You’ll view that image through a 5.5-inch 1920 by 1080 panel with a 100-degree field of view running at 60Hz (thus 60 frames per second)—a step down from the Oculus Rift DK2’s 75Hz. Standard features like an accelerometer, compass and gyroscope are present, but lacks positional tracking hardware (the DK2 has this), though you could remedy this with a hardware plugin.

Razer

Want to build one yourself? In keeping with open-source principles, Razer says it’ll support that, too, allowing intrepid DIY’ers to freely download the device’s 3D files, to be printed and assembled into a working headset. (In fact, the plans are available for request from osvr.com right now.)

Note that Razer isn’t the first to pose an open-source VR standard: a group called the Immersive Technology Alliance announced yesterday that it, too, wants to see open-source standards emerge for VR and beyond–the ITA’s scope sounds like it may be broader, encompassing everything from VR devices to related peripherals like cameras, sensors, phones, motion controls and so forth, though as noted by Tom’s Hardware, the ITA, like Razer, intends any such standard to be complementary to what Facebook and Oculus VR are up to, not adversarial.

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MONEY stocks

Virtual Reality Makes Investing — Yes, Investing — Dangerously Fun

StockCity
StockCity from FidelityLabs

A new virtual reality tool from Fidelity makes navigating the stock market feel like a game—for better or worse.

There’s no question: Strapping on an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and exploring StockCity, Fidelity’s new tool for investors, is oddly thrilling.

Admittedly, the fun may have more to do with the immersive experience of this 3D technology—with goggles that seamlessly shift your perspective as you tilt your head—than with the subject matter.

But I found it surprisingly easy to buy into the metaphor: As you glide through the virtual city that you’ve designed, buildings represent the stocks or ETFs in your portfolio, the weather represents the day’s market performance, and red and green rooftops tell you whether a stock is down or up for the day. Who wants to be a measly portfolio owner when you can instead be the ruler of a dynamic metropolis—a living, breathing personal economy?

Of course, there are serious limits to the tool in its current form. The height of a building represents its closing price on the previous day and the width the trading volume, which tell you nothing about, say, the stock’s historical performance or valuation—let alone whether it’s actually a good investment.

And, unless you’re a reporter like me or one of the 50,000 developers currently in possession of an Oculus Rift, you’re limited to playing with the less exciting 2D version of the program on your monitor (see a video preview below)—at least until a consumer version of the headset comes out in a few months, priced between $200 and $400.

Those flaws notwithstanding, if this technology makes the “gamification” of investing genuinely fun and appealing, that could be big deal. It could be used to better educate the public about the stock market and investing in general.

But it also raises a big question: Should investing be turned into a game, like fantasy sports?

There are dangers inherent in ostensibly educational games like Fidelity’s existing Beat the Benchmark tool, which teaches investing terms and demonstrates how different asset allocations have performed over various time periods. If you beat your benchmark, after all, what have you learned? A lot of research suggests that winning at investing tends to teach people the wrong lesson.

“Investors think that good returns originate from their investment skills, while for bad returns they blame the market,” writes Thomas Post, a finance professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and author of one recent study on the subject.

In reality, great performance in the stock market tends to depend more on luck than skill, even for the most expert investors. That’s why most people are best off putting their money into passive index funds and seldom trading. It also means there’s not a lot of value in watching the real-time performance of your stocks—in any number of dimensions.

TIME Gadgets

You’ll Be Able to Buy Oculus Rift in ‘Months, Not Years,’ CEO Says

Inside The 2014 E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images An attendee wears an Oculus VR Inc. Rift Development Kit 2 headset to play a video game during the E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo

Coming soon to a forehead near you

Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset, will be coming to consumers’ foreheads in the very foreseeable future,the company’s CEO Brendan Iribe said at Web Summit 2014 in Ireland on Tuesday.

“We’re all hungry for it to happen,” Iribe said, The Next Web reports. “We’re getting very close. It’s months, not years away, but many months.”

Tech Crunch predicts Iribe is most likely expecting a commercial release “next fall or into 2016, since anything under two years would technically match with his statement.”

The company has gone through significant changes since being acquired by Facebook for $2 billion in March, expanding from 75 to 200 employees and opening a separate R&D division.

[The Next Web]

TIME Toolbox

Here's What It's Like Inside the First Virtual Reality Documentary

Is virtual reality the future of documentary work? Danfung Dennis seems to think so as he unveils his first immersive film designed for Oculus Rift

Correction appended, Oct. 28.

Putting on a virtual reality headset feels a little like wearing the gaudiest pair of sunglasses ever: they’re awkward, unflattering — but they somehow manage to be kind of fun. Earlier this month, I was given the opportunity to try an Oculus Rift in one of TIME’s meeting rooms, sampling some imagery from Zero Point, the first movie ever shot in 3D, 360 degree video specifically for virtual reality.

I was transported to a whole new world.

I found myself in different settings — a virtual prairie surrounded by buffalos, a beach with a beautiful woman, and finally a military training session. The experience was a little overwhelming at first, but it didn’t take long for me to get used to it. It seemed that my brain was able to accept the virtual world almost as easily as it does the real one. When I finally returned to the conference room, though, it all seemed a little underwhelming.

Condition One
Condition One

The film Zero Point follows the pioneers, researchers, and developers of virtual reality, and is spearheaded by Danfung Dennis’s tech startup Condition One. The film uses footage from between three and 30 cameras, each shooting simultaneously at a slightly different angle, before being stitched together to create a seamless user experience. To view this film, you must own an Oculus Rift headset, which is currently only available to developers.

Nintendo Virtual Boy 1994; Oculus Rift 2014
Reuters; AP

Facebook’s recent $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR, creators of the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift, has spurred a massive resurgence of interest in virtual reality technology. For decades, the gaming industry has unsuccessfully attempted to introduce immersive headsets, but only now is the technology reaching a point where it can be used as a new documentary tool.

“The traditional rules of filmmaking and storytelling do not apply,” Dennis tells TIME. “There is no frame and it’s actually the audience or the user who’s deciding the frame and what’s of interest to them.”

“Anything that helps storytellers create more understanding and empathy for the people and issues that we are covering is worth exploring,” adds Brian Storm, founder and executive producer of the multimedia production studio MediaStorm. “It may take some time, but it’s clear that important storytelling can be elevated in the virtual reality space.” Indeed, the immersive experience may make room for a deeper connection between the viewer and the content – even an emotional one.

Condition One
Condition One

Similar technologies are already being used by the military to create flight simulators, and by doctors to practice surgeries. Ford uses it to assist designers in developing car prototypes, and NASA has been experimenting with controlling robots remotely and even simulating walks on Mars.

Dennis and his team have equally grand ambitions for virtual reality. They see it as a way to connect people to current events by using it in breaking news situations; ones that the general public lacks personal connection to. Of course, these aspirations will have to contend with the exorbitant price tag currently associated with the production of these visual experiences.

Beyond breaking news, Dennis also imagines the technology could be introduce to schools to expand on the classic curriculum: “They’re not reading a textbook about ancient Rome,” Dennis says, “They’re in ancient Rome.”

Dennis would also like to direct nature documentaries on pressing ecological concerns, with the goal of putting viewers in remote areas of high biodiversity. Places that “are threatened by deforestation or coral reefs that are acidifying and disappearing, or species that are on the brink of extinction,” he says. “Distill really complex, abstract problems that humanity is facing into experiences that we understand.”

Zero Point as seen through the Oculus Rift headset
Zero Point

For Dennis, even that is just a starting point. Eventually we will want more than to simply look around, he says. “We’re going to want our bodies in there, our hands in there. We’re going to be able to stand up, start walking around a scene, moving around it. That’s going to be mind-blowing.”

Dennis agrees that a fully immersive virtual experience might seem scary, even dangerous, to some, but he believes that temporarily imitating reality to the fullest extent is a natural urge, at least for him.

And yet, there is a great deal of software innovation necessary to bring even his simplest technological ideas to fruition, but for the first time it seems a matter of when and not if.

Correction: The original version of this story misattributed a quotation. It was Brian Storm, founder and executive producer of the multimedia production studio Media Storm, who said, “Anything that helps storytellers create more understanding and empathy for the people and issues that we are covering is worth exploring. It may take some time, but it’s clear that important storytelling can be elevated in the virtual reality space.”


Zero Point is an immersive film created by Condition One for the Oculus Rift. It is now available for PC on Steam.

Danfung Dennis is a documentary photographer and videographer. He directed the award-winning documentary Hell And Back Again and produced the 360 degree film Condition One.

Josh Raab is a contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow him on Instagram @instagraabit.


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