Rafael S. W. trials the latest upgrade in gaming – the Oculus Rift – and considers the future of gaming and the practical applications of virtual reality.

It was late on a Tuesday evening and I was getting a glimpse into another world. I was at a friend’s house and he was showing me his latest internet purchase, an Oculus Rift. In an aesthetic that science fiction has been predicting for years, this Kickstarter-funded virtual reality (VR) gaming device is played by wearing a headset connected to a computer. Now I don’t game much, but this was a household where Dance Dance Revolution was played at an almost professional level, so these guys know their stuff. And even to them, this was a new thing.

Created by Palmer Luckey in 2012, the Oculus Rift has already had developer kits shipped out to keen gamers like my friend. By tracking head movements, the view on screen directly relates to where the player is facing. This means the player is able to look at and move through a simulated environment that responds as if it were real.

The first game I played was simply a cinema simulation where you walk up and down the rows, and can even watch a movie (amusingly, Avatar was showing). But, for a generation that’s used to a fairly sophisticated gaming experience I could see more would be needed. I was glad I’d had the gentle introduction though. My friend said that some people jumped straight into the next game: a rollercoaster simulation called Rift Coaster.

I was standing on a rollercoaster car in a brightly coloured, but deserted carnival. Whenever I looked down I could see virtual legs instead of my own. I couldn’t move them obviously, but there was still a phantom quality to it all, while the whole time the cart was slowly trundling along its simulated tracks.

oculus-rift-photoThe fact that I was standing up now made me feel unsafe. It wasn’t that I believed it was real – the colours and setting and noises from my friends invisible behind me made that apparent enough – but there was a dreamlike quality to the simulation. And just as in dreams when you think you’re falling and jerk awake in fright, that’s exactly what happened to me. The rollercoaster went off the edge.

Amid much laughter and the noise of my own profanities, I found myself sitting on the ground. I felt like a lightweight, and probably seemed like one too. I was queasy and held the goggles in my hand while on the screen a spilt image showed a cart now racing around tracks. But I didn’t mind. I’d actually got that gut-drop sensation you get on carnival rides, and all I’d been doing was standing still in a room. And to me that seemed amazing.

For the rest of the evening, I had a mellow kind of seasickness and would look at my hands occasionally, just for reassurance. Experiencing the effect the Oculus gaming technology had on me, it’s no wonder that the practical applications of this technology are even more remarkable.

Virtual reality is already being used for physical and occupational therapy (where paralysed victims can have muscle stimulation while experiencing the illusion of movement), but it can also be used to address phobias, treat post-traumatic stress disorder, and even to train surgeons. In an experiment aimed at improving skills and reducing errors in gallbladder dissection through VR training, it was shown that surgeons who underwent training became 29 per cent faster during dissection. Those without VR training were five times more likely to either injure the gallbladder during dissection or burn surrounding tissue.

Where VR in the 1970s only allowed you to wander the streets of a town in one of three modes – ‘summer, winter and polygons’ – there are now VR programs that allow apparent real-time driving of Mars rovers. But the uses closer to home are even more fascinating.

While war can sometimes seem like a game, Virtual Iraq is anything but. Developed by the U.S. Department of Defense, Virtual Iraq is an attempt at treating post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans and those returning from combat. More appealing than a psychiatrist, and able to replicate wartime situations, Virtual Iraq will hopefully be able to help where traditional methods have failed.

A follow-on case from this is of Sam Brown, a burn victim soldier from Afghanistan. After suffering horrific burns and pain that continued to torment him even after drug-induced recovery, he was advised by cognitive psychologist Hunter Hoffman to try virtual reality. Initially Hoffmann had used VR as a means of treating arachnophobes, but he discovered that by immersing injured patients inside their own private world there were “drops in pain ratings by 30 to 50 percent”.

“According to our results,” Hoffman said, “VR not only reduces pain perception; it changes the way the brain processes pain signals.”

snow_worldSo he developed a program called SnowWorld to provide an immersive distraction to those who needed it most. SnowWorld, for Sam Brown, provided a relaxing out-of-body experience, just a few frames slower than reality. A kind of free-roaming, pared-down Grand Theft Auto. Slightly childish, but with the ability to shoot snowballs at everything, it provided the destruction, but more importantly, the distraction that he needed. After just the first trial, his pain had decreased, and his range of motion increased. And although SnowWorld was then only in the testing phase, already he wanted more.

But with people already dying from being too caught up in games it will be interesting to see the effects of the virtual on those left in the real world. What will happen when there’s a second Second Life? Will virtual war gaming become so believable that players develop post-traumatic stress disorder instead of being treated for it? The rollercoaster of this technology has already started, and even though we don’t know where it’s going, there’s no way to stop now. We can’t even move our legs.

Rafael S. W. is a recent graduate of creative writing and one of the founding members of Dead Poets’ Fight Club. He writes every single day and has been published in Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging No. 33 and Dot Dot Dash. He also competes in poetry slams and giant-sized chess games.