The Oculus Rift: virtual reality is no longer a joke

audioWell ladies and gentlemen, i have a different brilliant earphone piece to read, i know, you do not have to thank me each and every one, just add a social like to the piece of writing to demonstrate your appreciation.

The decades most exciting development in computer hardware looks a little like a fat black envelope stuck to a pair of ski goggles, and I had one strapped to my face two months ago as I sat at a desk in the Earls Court Exhibition Centre preparing to fly a Spitfire under a bridge.

Headphones over my ears replaced the thumping bass of the surrounding trade show with the spluttery growl of a Merlin engine. Looking down, I saw a pair of khakied knees and a gloved hand gripping a control yoke; above and to either side, the sun glittered through the cockpit canopy. As I flipped the aircraft into a turn and dive, my senses insisted that I was soaring, upside down, under an iron bridge and into a canyon. But my body and brain remained obstinately upright in a chair in west London, at the glorious mercy of a technology that promises to bring back that most laughable of Nineties computing obsessions: virtual reality.

This device is called the Oculus Rift, and it has come a long way since 2011, when Palmer Luckey, a 19-year-old Californian student, built the prototype from scavenged parts in his parents garage. Luckey was an enthusiastic collector of old VR hardware the clunky headsets that had enjoyed a brief tenure in Nineties amusement arcades and had long dreamt of bringing back the technology in a useful form.

But despite the colourful cyber-predictions of films such as Lawnmower Man, there were good reasons that the virtual reality craze had fizzled out by the millennium. The headsets were too heavy to wear for long, and immersion in the blocky graphics of these early virtual worlds came at a price: a stiff neck, motion sickness and the feeling of wading through treacle.

By 2011, however, the magic combination of accurate motion-sensing with lightweight, high-resolution displays no longer seemed so far off. As Luckey realised, the technology was by then integrated into most decent smartphones. So his prototype Rift used the equivalent of a large smartphone screen to display offset moving images, one for each eye, which the brain combined into an illusion of 3D depth. Head movements were tracked with phone-equivalent gyroscopes and accelerometers, adjusting the view so the user could look freely around a 3D world.

Two years on, Luckeys company Oculus VR is still piggybacking on vicious competition in the smartphone market, as its product lead Joseph Chen freely acknowledges.

Those guys are tearing each other apart trying to get the next best thing, he says. That has basically driven the costs down to where theyre affordable: displays and sensors that used to be hundreds of dollars now cost pennies. Oculus charges just $300 (180) for a low resolution developer kit a kit for companies interested in developing software for the device and has shipped more than 40,000 worldwide, the biggest deployment of virtual reality headsets in history. It has raised $91million (55.5 million) in investment funding and done this without actually having a product on the market: you cant buy it in shops until next year.

The excitement surrounding the Oculus was palpable at the Eurogamer Expo, the games show where I tried out its second-generation prototype. This is understandable: to many enthusiasts, the prospect of stepping wholesale into a virtual fantasy world fulfils one of the oldest promises of the medium.

An example of the view using an Oculus Rift

But theres more to this technology than gaming. Among the demonstrations Chen showed me was a London tourism experience, built from 360-degree camera views of locations in the capital by the media agency Visualise. The viewer begins perched on top of the London Eye wheel, staring out over the capital, and can beam into various 3D-modelled locations across town London Zoo, the Gherkin, Piccadilly Circus by a shift of visual focus.

Another demonstration by Arch Virtual, a business that creates 3D software for a wide range of clients, offered a virtual tour of an architects concept house. Using a controller, I was able to walk wherever I liked in the building. The sense of inhabiting real space in these demonstrations was astonishing.

Jon Brouchoud, the Wisconsin-based architect who runs Arch Virtual, says that using the Rift developer kit transformed the way he designs. Any time youre looking at an architectural illustration projected onto a screen its distorted, he tells me. Theres a natural distortion based on the way 3D maps onto a 2D surface. Put the same environment in the Oculus Rift and its completely different. Being able to stand inside a space, go back to the drawing board and then stand inside it again completely changes the way you design a building. If this isnt the game-changer for architecture, I dont know what is.

Arch Virtual, Brouchoud says, has also taken on several secret projects for medical clients. VR technology has already been used to aid neurological recovery from trauma, as well as to treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, post-stroke rehabilitation and phantom limb syndrome.

Andrew Poulter, an expert in computer science and simulation at the MoDs Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, envisages still other applications for the technology hinted at by the Rift. In the past two years the US army has spent $57million (35million) on an immersive training simulator called the Dismounted Soldier Training System, which tracks not just head movement but limb positioning and weapon movements.

In Britain, Poulter explains, head-mounted VR technology is still only being used experimentally, within a research context, although his lab has been looking closely at developer versions of the Rift.

A visitor to a trade show tries out the Oculus Rift

A good deal of British military training, Poulter explains, is still done with on-screen computer programs. But the Oculus Rift, he says, represents a new class of hardware with real potential. And it is games technology that now sets the trend for the defence industry, not the other way around. The defence budgets of even the largest countries are relatively small compared to the massive budgets that the entertainment industry has.

Its easy to forget that none of this technology is really available yet. Oculus is shipping only to developers with the technical know-how to plumb the depths of the software, while many of its prospective rivals remain shrouded in mystery. A few weeks ago, Sony filed a patent related to a head-mounted display, seeming to lend credence to rumours that it plans to launch a VR headset in 2014 for the PlayStation 4.

But the competition is certainly gathering. A device called the CastAR, which overlays 3D images onto a real-world view, recently completed a successful run on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter and has entered production. On the morning that I sat down to write this piece, news broke that another Oculus rival, the gloriously sci-fi sounding Avegant Glyph, will take to Kickstarter in January: it promises to project 3D images onto the human retina and fold up into a pair of headphones when youre done with it.

The team at Oculus, meanwhile, promises a further revolution in display technology when it exhibits a new prototype at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, and says it will have goggles in the hands of consumers by the end of the year. Looking forward into this immersive future, one is tempted to agree with the 90-year-old lady whose experience with the Oculus Rift has attracted more than two million viewers on YouTube.

This is something else, she exclaims raptly, clutching the visor to her face with both hands. Am I still sitting where I was? Holy mackerel!

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Two Way Radios Now and Before

headset. earphonesWhen we found this short article we were so excited, having sought for over one year for this, discovering it on this blog was an thrilling time for me.

Today almost all two way radios have ranges from 1 to 2 miles and they are much smaller than the ones we had a decade or so ago. Two-way radios are very useful – they are great for long road trips when taking separate cars, on the ski slopes, at amusement parks, when hunting or camping, on backcountry hiking trips, or even in large shopping malls. Businesses can use two-way radios instead of cell phones in many situations as well. There are no per minute charges with 2-way radios which is one benefit over traditional cell phone use. Plus, if you are in the woods where cell phones don’t always work, a two-way radio may just save your life. What should you look for in a two-way radio from the store? We get into two-way radio features in our buying guide down below.

The main features to consider when buying a two-way radio are: channels, privacy codes, lock features, range, FRS/UHF/GMRS, size, usage life, display screen, and call features. Most two-way radios comes with 2 to 14 channels, the more expensive ones offer more channels. Extra channels can come in handy when you are trying to operate the Two Way Radios in a congested area. Some radios have sub-channels which greatly increases your choice and reception. To keep people from picking up your channel, look for two-way radios that offer privacy codes.

Privacy codes or private call features will scramble your voice so outside parties will not be able to listen to your conversation. Weather reception channels are available on most two-way radios and are great for finding out about local weather conditions. A lock feature allows you to stay on your particular channel even as you move around. A range of 1 to 2 miles is what most two-way radios will provide. The actual distance will vary as the terrain around you changes.

For a longer range, you will need to get on a GMRS (General Mobil Radio Service) which will require a special license that the FCC can supply. FRS (Family Radio Service) is the general radio frequency for families and recreational use that two-way radios use. You will also find two-way radios on the UHF (Ultra High Frequency) for better reception. Compared to the large radios of 20 years ago, todays two way radios fit right in the palm of your hand are rather small. Most are only 5 to 12 ounces in weight. Two way radios run on alkaline batteries or nickel cadmium batteries (check with the manufacturer).

Battery life for Two Way Radios is based around 90% standby, 5% reception, and 5% transmission. The display screens on two-way radios are not that large, but you can get a lot of information on the screen like battery life, clock/time, alarm, stopwatch, digital compass, thermometer, and indicators for transmitting or receiving a signal. LCD display screens are easier to see in changing light conditions so look for a model that offers that. A channel saver feature is nice to have and some models do it automatically for you while others require it to be done manually. Talk confirmation lets your other party know when you are done talking and when it’s safe for them to respond. Memory location will store the channels you use most so you can access them more quickly.

A scanning feature lets you see which channels are currently in use. Last channel recall feature lets you pull up the last channel you were on. All two way radios have an incoming call alert which is often just a simple ring. Look for models that offer a vibrate mode instead of the ring as this will come in handy when you are out hunting and need the quiet. The top brands in two-way radios are Motorola, Cobra, Kenwood, and Icom Two Way Radios. Prices range from $25 to $250 for two-way radios.