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Virtual reality for beginners: Everything you need to know to wrap your head around VR

Hayden Dingman | July 20, 2015
Two years and five iterations of the Oculus Rift later, it's finally time to start writing about virtual reality as a thing that's happening, not something that will happen. Less than six months from now the first of the heavy hitter consumer-grade virtual reality sets will hit market--Valve and HTC's Vive headset--and a few months after that we'll see the Rift finally do the same.

For the latter, we turn to the longstanding love/hate relationship with Microsoft's Kinect. Yes, the Kinect is janky. Yes, even the second generation. It's just not a great piece of hardware, especially in the ways Microsoft originally intended.

It is, however, a fantastic hobbyist tool. Plenty of VR enthusiasts have hacked together Kinect games for the Rift, allowing the device to "see" the player and track not just hands but every part of the body. This lets you jump, duck, kick, elbow, and all sorts of other verbs that can't be accomplished solely with hand- and head-tracking.

There's also a niche push for omnidirectional treadmills. One of the big problems in VR is you're confined to a single space. The omnidirectional treadmill (such as the $700 Virtuix Omni) allows you to "walk" in virtual reality. There's plenty of potential here, but it's hard to know whether these devices will take off--because they take up quite a bit of space, because they're expensive, and because people are lazy.

For now, all you really need to know is this: Gamepads work, but hand-tracking is your best bet. That's the only one you're likely to buy anyway, so there's no need to worry yourself with the Kinect or an omnidirectional treadmill.

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If you haven't figured it out by now, the primary use for virtual reality at the moment is gaming. That's not too surprising--most games are already built from entirely virtual environments, so it's relatively easy to translate the experience to a VR headset (though games built solely to take advantage of VR's unique capabilities are obviously best).

That being said, there are quite a few practical non-gaming uses for VR. Oculus has seen Rifts used in healthcare, in architecture, in prototyping, in film, et cetera.

Film is a particularly hot-button subject. The first "film" for VR, Zero Point, released on Steam last year, and it's just the first of many. Samsung's mobile GearVR platform has multiple 360-degree video apps allowing you to experience a helicopter tour of Iceland, follow snowboarders down a mountain, and much (much) more. Google even dedicated time to showing off its new 360-degree camera system during Google I/O this year.

This is a potentially huge industry--one that could rival games on VR headsets.

I heard something about Facebook...

There's also the Facebook question. Last year Facebook bought Oculus--a move that was...well, controversial to say the least. For now it seems like Facebook's been an ideal partner, providing money and support without tampering with Oculus's hardware or software.

However, there's always the possibility something will happen down the line--Mark Zuckerberg's made it clear he thinks the Rift and virtual reality have huge potential in terms of social connectivity. And he's not wrong. Anyone who's read Neuromancer knows there's potentially something interesting to be garnered from people "living" in virtual spaces.


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