Whether they're battling zombies in dark alleyways, leading classroom excursions around the globe or offering virtual front-row seats at the footy, Australians are forging the way in the brave new world of virtual reality.
The idea of donning a headset and diving into a virtual realm is no longer the stuff of science fiction. Anyone can get their first taste of virtual reality today, thanks to Google Cardboard – a cheap viewer which holds a smartphone up to your face as a window into a virtual world. Like that first glimpse of television in department store windows of the 1950s, Google Cardboard offers Australians a tantalising taste of what's to come.
A range of more advanced virtual reality headsets are due to arrive over the next year, including Facebook's highly anticipated Oculus Rift which is already available as a "developer kit" for early adopters. Like the birth of television, the technology is finally within our reach but we're still deciding how to put it to good use.
Adam Turner prepares to battle zombies at Zero Latency.
Rather than stand back and let others lead the way, three tech-savvy Melbourne friends took the plunge with the early-release Oculus Rift – working in their spare time to build a virtual reality suite in a suburban garage. Their dream became reality this month as their first "Zero Latency" virtual reality centre opened in a North Melbourne warehouse – letting architects walk through virtual skyscrapers during the day and gamers wage war against zombies after dark.
The Oculus Rift headset is dependent on an attached computer which means that, like Google Cardboard, you need to sit still and can only look around to explore the virtual environment. Zero Latency breaks these shackles to offer "free roam" virtual reality, thanks to whisper-quiet lightweight PCs in backpacks which drive the Oculus Rift headset and attached headphones.
Covering 400 square metres, Zero Latency allows up to six people to walk around the warehouse tracked by overhead cameras. The cameras report to a powerful server which builds the virtual world and wirelessly controls what each person can see and hear.
The Oculus Rift headset.
The result is a fully immersive world complete with physical rifles which appear in the virtual world as a range of weapons – handy when you're cornered by a horde of angry zombies with a taste for brains. A proximity sensor appears when you stray too close to another player or a real-world wall, giving you the confidence to fearlessly leap into the virtual world – at least fearless until the zombies draw within arm's reach.
Putting on the Oculus Rift headset, you might expect to stumble at first but your brain quickly accepts the Zero Latency world as real, with each eye seeing a slightly different perspective to create a realistic sense of depth. There's no lag in the images as you turn your head. Directional sound adds to the sense of realism and you often turn to see approaching zombies after hearing them over your shoulder.
You're not looking at photographs or real-world video. Everything you see is computer-generated and interactive. The Zero Latency graphics aren't quite sharp enough to convince you that what you're seeing is real, but the perspective and dynamics of the virtual world are accurate enough to trick your brain into accepting what it sees. Stand on a ledge and your natural fear of falling kicks in. Hide behind a burnt-out car as zombies draw closer and your heart starts to pound.
Teacher Sarah Anderson and one of her students with a Google Cardboard viewer.
While street battles with the walking dead are a great way to showcase virtual reality's immersive nature, it's not only hardcore gamers who are excited about the technology, says Zero Latency co-founder Tim Ruse.
"People who have never been in virtual reality before are really amazed, because it's such an interesting sensation," he says. "People who don't play games are sometimes skeptical at first but they end up enjoying it.
"Meanwhile people who already have a lot of virtual reality experience really enjoy the freedom of not being tied to one spot, so they can walk around and explore. Holding a realistic prop in your hand which also exists in the virtual world, like our pump-action shotgun, also adds a lot to the interactive experience."
Stefan Pernar wears a Samsung Gear VR headset, with 360Heros GoPro camera rig.
An IT project manager by trade, Ruse quit his day job last year to work fulltime on Zero Latency, as did fellow co-founders software engineer Scott Vandonkelaar and IT forensics expert Kyle Smith. A Melbourne success story, they were helped out of the garage by a Pozible crowd-funding campaign, a grant from Film Victoria, start-up investment from Australia's Carthona Capital and a hardware partnership with Dell Alienware.
Opening to the public this month sees their dream become reality, but Zero Latency's ambitions stretch much further. Along with expanding to cover more floor space, they plan to open centres in other Australian capital cities and perhaps overseas. Sites can be linked so people in different locations can appear side-by-side in a virtual world.
There are plenty of non-gaming applications for Zero Latency and people can hire out the venue to experience their own virtual reality content, says Vandonkelaar. At this point it basically becomes a Star Trek-style holodeck where anything is possible.
Model Laura Henshaw is outfitted and ready to play at Zero Latency. Photo: Simon Schluter
"People are waking up to the real potential of virtual reality; it's certainly not just for games," Vandonkelaar says.
"From a business perspective, it's a great way to walk your client through a multi-million dollar office fit-out, or visualise construction plans with colleagues. You might even take a potential homebuyer through a property and we're doing some work with the REA real estate group. Then you've got education, training, tourism and more – you are literally only limited by your imagination."
A warehouse-sized suite obviously isn't practical for your average home, but virtual reality is set to reach Australians in many ways, shapes and forms. Along with Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard, there are a range of other headsets on the horizon including Samsung's Gear VR, Sony's Project Morpheus and HTC's Vive built in conjunction with gaming giant Valve.
Beyond immersive games, sport looks set to be a major driver for virtual reality – as it is with traditional television. US-based NextVR is aiming to become the Netflix of virtual reality broadcasting and is working with the national gridiron, basketball and ice hockey leagues to give fans a virtual front-row seat. English Premier League, NASCAR and the US Masters golf tournament are also experimenting with virtual reality.
Google-owned YouTube is shaping up as a major source of virtual reality content and is already home to a growing library of Google Cardboard-compatible videos. Visityoutube.com/360 on your smartphone and you'll find videos which don't require a headset; simply tilt your phone to look around as the video plays.
Closer to home, the AFL is evaluating the potential of virtual reality on the football field, testing stereoscopic and 360-degree cameras designed to record video in every direction.
While the AFL is not ready to go public with its plans, it might tie into the next round of broadcast rights which are due to begin in 2017. YouTube is chasing sports broadcast rights around the world and is reportedly talking to Australia's major sporting codes.
While the hardware is maturing, virtual reality content is still in its infancy. Early efforts mostly involve transplanting existing ideas to the new medium – just as early television programs were little more than reworked radio serials while pioneers learned to make the most of the new technology.
The next few years will see a defining moment for virtual reality, marking its mainstream arrival just as the 1956 Melbourne Olympics marked the arrival of television in Australia, says Stefan Pernar – president of the Australian Virtual Reality Industry Association.
"Perhaps a major film director will embrace virtual reality and try to push the boundaries," Pernar says. "Big names like David Attenborough, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have all said that they're looking at virtual reality."
"Alternatively, it might be a major music act holding a virtual reality-only concert. An event of that magnitude will spark the critical mass of users and subsequent explosion in content required for virtual reality to take centre stage."
Pernar's Ballarat-based Virtual Reality Ventures is a Samsung virtual reality development partner and works with a range of business and education clients. While the future of virtual reality is still taking shape, he suspects Facebook will be a key player after its $2 billion acquisition of the Oculus Rift development team.
"Facebook has made a very big bet on virtual reality and they'll want everyday people to use the consumer version of the Oculus Rift headset to share experiences. Of course, they'll have to enable their users to create and share that kind of content – how Facebook goes about that could have a major impact on the future direction of virtual reality."
While much of the early talk about virtual reality focuses on its entertainment value, the classroom is where it might reach its full potential, says Melbourne primary school teacher Sarah Anderson – who is already introducing her students to virtual worlds via Google Cardboard.
As digital education co-ordinator at St John's Primary School in Frankston East, she is particularly excited about Google Expeditions – a new feature which lets the teacher link a classroom of Google Cardboard headsets to lead the students on a virtual field trip.
"Until now, excursions were limited to within driving distance of our school but Google Cardboard opens up the world to our students," Anderson says. "We're still waiting to use the new Expeditions feature but we've already got Grade 1 and 2 kids exploring the Palace of Versailles on the other side of the world."
"Google Cardboard is a great way to engage children with a subject. They love the immersive experience but I've always said that it's important to use virtual reality as just one more classroom tool to improve learning outcomes rather than using technology for the sake of it."
Anderson runs the APPED digital education consultancy with St John's information technology teacher Marisa Peters. Rather than just consuming virtual reality content, Peters is also encouraging students to create their own virtual reality for class projects and as part of the school's lunchtime Coding Club.
While the school doesn't yet own 360-degree video cameras, students are using the Photo Sphere feature on smartphones to capture 360-degree photographs which can be viewed using Google Cardboard. Anyone can upload 360-degree video to YouTube and photographs to Google Maps, with the students publishing Photo Spheres of their classrooms.
"It's still early days but virtual reality is certainly not just a gimmick in the classroom," Peters says. "It's not about children retreating into a virtual world; in education I'd say it's the very opposite. Technologies like Google Expeditions open their eyes to what's out there beyond the school gate – we want to broaden their horizons so they're keen to get out there and see the real world."
DIY virtual reality
Anyone can download the instructions to build their own Google Cardboard viewer, or buy one for just a few dollars.
Google Cardboard is a bit like an old-fashioned View-Master. There are no electronics inside, it's just a cardboard or plastic frame designed to hold a smartphone up to your face and lenses in front of your eyes. There's a divider to ensure each eye only sees one half of the screen – presenting slightly different perspectives to create a sense of depth.
You'll find plenty of free Google Cardboard-compatible apps for Android, Apple and Windows Phone devices – letting you ride roller coasters, chase dinosaurs through the jungle and wander through museums. You can also tap into YouTube's virtual reality video collections.
It's easy to take your own 360-degree photos using Google's Photo Sphere Camera app, slowly turning on the spot as the app stitches together multiple photos to capture a complete view of the world around you.
You can't shoot 360-degree movies with a smartphone, but you'll find special 360-degree video cameras such as the Bublcam, Giroptic 360cam, Kodak PixPro SP360, VSN Mobil V.360 and Ricoh Theta m15. Alternatively, you can build your own circular video camera rig and stitch the video together using Google's upcoming Jump software.