Exploring virtual reality at the "Star Cave" at UC San Diego's Qualcomm Institute.
Exploring virtual reality at the “Star Cave” at UC San Diego’s Qualcomm Institute.

By Leonard Novarro and Rosalynn Carmen

The purchase of the company developing the Oculus Rift by Facebook last year opened many eyes to the possibilities of virtual reality.

But has it made VR any more real?

That and a other questions were posed to Jurgen Schulze, research scientist at UC San Diego’s Qualcomm Institute and professor in the schools’ computer science department, during a recent discussion in anticipation of the school’s virtual reality symposium scheduled for June.

Jurgen Schulze of the Qualcomm Institute
Jurgen Schulze of the Qualcomm Institute

“What’s driving me is the vision of creating computer-controlled virtual worlds that help you solve problems in a better way than you could do before,” said Schulze, who’s been involved in the field for the last 15 years. “I’m fascinated by exploring the world of possibility.”

However, that possibility is still years away, he admitted, likening VR, as it’s called, to the stone age of computers, when machines the size of a room cranked out small bits of information from thousands of punch cards.

“Not until the 1980s, when home computers were created,” did we enter the IT stage, said Schulze. “Technology has to be commonplace,” before we can take the next giant step, he added.

Virtual reality has been the subject of experiments since the 1960s, but it never really caught on until last year, when Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg paid $2 billion for Oculis VR of Irvine because of the promise of the company’s experimental headset for 3D gaming. At the time, Facebook said it was investing in the product because it saw it as the future. As CNN reported: “This may be a savvy bet by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the long-term future of how we communicate.”

Virtual reality is an artificial world that fools your brain onto thinking it’s real through the application of sight, sound and touch via head gear like Oculus Rift or by sitting in a contained room like UC San Diego’s Star Cave, which allows you to explore worlds as tiny as nanoparticles or as big as the universe by surrounding you with 360-degree, three-dimensional  sound and screens that  you can experience by wearing  3D glasses.

The more common way of experiencing virtual reality, however, is through headsets containing small LCD (liquid-crystal display) screens in front of each eye responding to computer images or images fed through a cell phone as well as synchronized audio tracks. Motion is conveyed through gloves containing fiber-optic sensors or by operating a stick or similar attachment as in video games. A computer would control the display while you control the computer with the glove or stick.

Right now, most of the technology is in the experimental stage. However, as more applications are developed by the military for training or to be used in medicine, such as evoking  biofeedback or overcoming missing limb pain, the technology will break through, said Schulze. Video games will be the first field to lap it up, but VR will need content to move forward. That could be anything from a virtual journey to Greece or shopping at Jerome’s for a new sofa. The adaptation of the cell phone to fit the new technology will drive the field.

“The experience is good now, but what we are seeing are demos, and after five minutes that’s not going to be enough,” Schulze said. “Technology has to match content to keep people interested so it’s more than a gadget.” For now, he added, “games are going to have to be the driver.”

Ultimately, however, VR will take the place of many everyday experiences.  For example, why travel miles and hours to go to a meeting when the same experience can be shared with others right in your living room or home office?

“We can do a lot of interaction in virtual space,” said Shulze. “My belief  is that was what (Zuckerberg) saw, and that is where he wants to go. Facebook wants to be the YouTube of virtual reality.”

However, “transferring that kind of information over the Internet is not yet possible. Networks have to be much faster,” said Schulze. But that day will come, perhaps in the next decade.

Said Schulze: “What I want to see is people not just able to buy virtual reality technology. I would like to see lines in front of Best Buy when the next Oculus Rift comes out. I want to see hundreds of people…When you can see as much interest as there was for iPhones, that’s when I’ll know we’ve made it.”

Leonard Novarro and Rosalynn  Carmen are founders of Asia Media America and the Asian Heritage Society.