If you’re looking for summertime fun for your kids (or…uh…yourself), check out these virtual reality (VR) activities. The clunky VR experiences of the past have given way to some sleek applications and experiences:
If you're a moviegoer like me, you've probably seen Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, in which four teenagers are sucked into the world of a vintage video game and become four virtual characters, each with their strengths and weaknesses. Although the “sucked into a video game” experience is still in the concept stage, virtual reality (VR) has been steadily gaining ground over the last few years. After a couple of product miscues, Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear, and their competitors are now widely popular with players of role-playing games (RPGs).
What’s the technology behind a VR headset? The Oculus Rift headset sports a 2,160 × 1,200p organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display panel that’s evenly divided between each eye and refreshes at a 90Hz rate. Originally, the Rift was designed for gamers with an Xbox One interface, but it also has the High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) 1.3, Universal Serial Bus (USB) 2.0, and USB 3.0 interfaces and runs under Windows 8, with support for macOS and Linux. The standard unit includes stereo headphones, with an optional motion controller.
As schools break for the summer, hordes of kids will be taking advantage of very similar technology in their local VR arcades. VR arcades have been making a comeback after three decades in the wilderness. In the early 1990s, companies such as Virtual World and Virtuality manufactured VR pods that appeared in movie theater lobbies and video-game arcades. But the clunky controls and rudimentary visuals of the day delayed market acceptance until the advent of low-cost graphics processors, precision optics, and lightweight, high-definition displays.
Now VR is back and spreading like weeds in every major city. For example, VR World, near the Empire State Building in New York City, New York, encompasses a 1,400m2 spread over three floors and includes 50 VR experiences (plus a full bar, naturally). Players can participate in extreme sports, walk along a “plank” that’s 146m off the ground, ascend the side of a rock, or save the galaxy from vicious hordes.
If your summer plans take you to the UK, then you’re in luck: You can visit Video Champions, London’s first VR arcade. And in Las Vegas, you can have the kids battle deadly viruses in the MGM Grand’s Virtual Reality Arena—while you’re blowing their college fund in the high-stakes poker room.
Moving up the scale, VR is transforming the experience of amusement parks, both large and small, by giving old roller-coaster rides a new lease on life. As speeds increase and the loops and twists get wilder, each year’s terrifying thrill ride becomes tomorrow’s ho-hum snoozer.
No worries though. With a roller coaster, a knowledge of human sense perception, and a headset, a VR designer can make a mild roller-coaster descent feel to the rider like a vertical plunge down the side of a skyscraper. Case in point, Six Flags has morphed its Magic Mountain into a new roller-coaster adventure called the New Revolution Virtual Reality Experience: As the ride begins, your first drop becomes an aircraft launch off the edge of a building. Your goal is to destroy an alien mother ship and save the earth before coasting to a stop and basking in the adulation of the grateful populace.
Six Flags offers the experience at multiple parks, but they have competition. At SeaWorld Orlando, you can board your mini-submarine, evade the monstrous Kraken, and meander through Atlantis before resurfacing at your home port.
As you’d expect, Disney is also getting into VR in a big way. Their Secrets of the Empire attraction uses characters from Rogue One and lets you sneak in disguise into an empire base to steal an item that’s critical for the survival of the Rebel Alliance. To help in this seemingly hopeless task, you receive an outfit with a VR headset and a vest containing a computer, a battery pack, and haptics technology. The headset creates VR scenery that includes the interior of a Rebel starship, the fiery planet called Mustafar, and your Imperial Stormtrooper armor. The haptics technology provides physical sensations, such as a tingle when a blaster hits you.
A Disney vacation can easily run over $1,000 a day for a family of four, so those of us without trust funds—or who want to encourage youthful curiosity—may opt to take the family to a local science center or museum. Many museums offer VR tours or virtual trips to exotic destinations; visitors to the London Science Museum can even experience an earth reentry in a Soyuz spacecraft via a 12-minute VR presentation.
If anything’s left at the end of the adventure, consider investing in a VR franchise: The dozen or so VR Junkies stores are primarily in the lower 48 states, but you can also find them in Hawaii, Canada, and even New Zealand. My local store offers both single and multiplayer games. There, my family and I can battle yet another zombie apocalypse, enter a dodgeball tournament, experience a haunted house, or stop dragons from incinerating an elven village. To relax after our heroic endeavors, we can stroll through a tropical rainforest or even get in a snowball fight. Pretty cool—considering we live in Arizona, a state where frying eggs on the sidewalk is another popular summer pastime.
If you think all these VR activities sound fun, just wait…there’s more to come. In 2019, for example, Disney will unveil its Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge adventure park at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Among the attractions will be an immersive-reality Millennium Falcon. Visitors will be able to pilot the ship, fire the blasters, prepare for the jump into hyperspace, and maybe even make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs (whatever that means!).
ILMxLAB, part of Disney’s Lucasfilm division that launched in June 2015, is heading up the technology development. Executives discussed the new project during GTC 2018, the annual technical conference put on by Nvidia, a leading manufacturer of graphics processing units (GPUs).
A Boxx Technologies graphics workstation, powered by eight Nvidia Quadro P6000 GPUs, will create the virtual world for each Millennium Falcon attraction. We’re talking serious processing goodness here. Each P6000 is capable of 12 teraFLOPS and Nvidia’s SLI multi-GPU scaling technology connects all eight P6000s for maximum rendering performance. The design will also employ the Unreal Engine suite of photo-realistic VR tools from Epic Games.
VR’s time has most definitely arrived, and it’ll be fascinating to see what the next couple of summers will bring. Stay tuned!
As a freelance technical writer, Paul Pickering has written on a wide range of topics including: semiconductor components & technology, passives, packaging, power electronic systems, automotive electronics, IoT, embedded software, EMC, and alternative energy. Paul has over 35 years of engineering and marketing experience in the electronics industry, including time spent in automotive electronics, precision analog, power semiconductors, embedded systems, logic devices, flight simulation and robotics. He has hands-on experience in both digital and analog circuit design, embedded software, and Web technologies. Originally from the North-East of England, he has lived and worked in Europe, the US, and Japan. He has a B.Sc. (Hons) in Physics & Electronics from Royal Holloway College, University of London, and has done graduate work at Tulsa University.
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