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Tricking the brain with transformative virtual reality

December 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Want to have a just-like-real-life fantasy experience without leaving your living room? Virtual reality technology is already employed by certain industries, but economics correspondent Paul Solman considers the variety of applications it could have in the consumer market in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: something completely different.

Correspondent Paul Solman takes a look at a technology that allows adventurous users to explore the latest developments in the world of video gaming.

It’s part of his ongoing coverage Making Sense of financial news.

PAUL SOLMAN: It was a 20-year-old named Palmer Luckey who would finally make science fiction dreams come true.

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Working in his parents garage, he cobbled together a headset out of ski goggles, smartphone and tablet parts to create a just-like-real-life gaming experience. Then, hoping to raise $250,000 to take his invention to market, he turned to the crowd-funding Web site Kickstarter.

PALMER LUCKEY, Oculus Rift: So join the revolution. Make a pledge. And help up change gaming forever.

PAUL SOLMAN: Within days, he had 10 times what he needed, as gamers went gaga over the goggles.

PALMER LUCKEY: Games are something I’m really passionate about. And the problem was, there was nothing that gave me the experience that I wanted, the Matrix, where I can plug in and actually be in the game.

PAUL SOLMAN: The Oculus Rift headset is still just a prototype. To see how far virtual reality will actually go, we visited Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

JEREMY BAILENSON, Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab: This is the best virtual experience you can have in the entire world right now.

PAUL SOLMAN: Lab founder Jeremy Bailenson is a technologist and a psychologist.

JEREMY BAILENSON: Virtual reality is basically two things: tracking your body movements and sending new information to your eyes and ears based on those movements.

PAUL SOLMAN: To make that happen, all you need are eight cameras to track the positions of all your body parts, accelerometers to monitor your head’s rotation, dozens of speakers for sense-around sound, maybe a floor plate that vibrates with bass frequencies, all run by a roomful of computers.

JEREMY BAILENSON: The job of these machines is going to be to continually change what you see, what you hear, and what you feel on your skin as a function of how you have moved.

PAUL SOLMAN: Vivid graphics don’t trick the brain, says Bailenson; movement does.

JEREMY BAILENSON: It’s nice to have good graphics, but what’s critical is very accurately tracking the position of your head, your hands, and your body. And so, in this lab, we track your hand position to an accuracy of one-quarter-of-one-millimeter. And we do it 200 times a second.

It’s the accuracy and the temporal frequency that’s important. And for V.R. to work, we have got to show you different stuff as a function of you turning your head. And when you bend down, the world needs to change. And when you put your arm up, you need to see your arm.

PAUL SOLMAN: And when you’re immersed in a simple graphic version of the very room I was standing in…

JEREMY BAILENSON: OK. So what I want you to do is look down. And now, Cody, can you…

PAUL SOLMAN: Oh! Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Now, I’m not going to be able to walk across it.

JEREMY BAILENSON: OK. You don’t have to. We can — if you want to…


PAUL SOLMAN: I literally won’t be able to do it.

JEREMY BAILENSON: You don’t have to. Would you like a room that’s less scary? We can put you in one.


Now, the point of airing this sequence is not to humiliate me, though it manages to do a pretty good job, but to show how absolutely transformative this new technology might be. V.R. is already used professionally for everything from vehicle design, to flight simulation, to surgical training, to psychotherapy.

And when it does hit the consumer market, it won’t be just for games. Can’t make it to Florence this year, or maybe ever, to see Michelangelo’s most famous statue? Want to duck the crowds? If you can’t come to the David, the David can come to you.

JEREMY BAILENSON: And open your eyes.

PAUL SOLMAN: Oh, my God. That’s unbelievable.

How about seeing the David in a completely new way, like being the David?

JEREMY BAILENSON: Step into David. Share his body space.

PAUL SOLMAN: Oh. Holy smokes.

In case you’re wondering, it’s not just your trepid reporter who had such violent reactions.

WOMAN: Oh, my God!


PAUL SOLMAN: Though non-video game geezers do seem especially susceptible.

WOMAN: Oh, lordy.


PAUL SOLMAN: This Oculus Rift trial user is actually not far from David at the moment, in the countryside of virtual Tuscany.

WOMAN: Oh. Oh, I can’t believe it. It’s really beautiful.

PAUL SOLMAN: And think how common online video chats are becoming, and what they will be like in virtual reality. We saw an early example last year with futurist Ray Kurzweil.

RAY KURZWEIL, futurist: It’s not that different than what we have today, just much more powerful.

PAUL SOLMAN: And why limit those chats to the living, asks virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier?

JARON LANIER, “Who Owns the Future?”: There’s also this funding of sort of fake immortality, where you create media effects or sort of fake ghosts of people who’ve died, so that other people can interact with them as if they’re still alive.

A generation or two from now, this will be part of our experience, in the same way that movies, and literature, and video games already are.

PAUL SOLMAN: Force for good? Force for ill?

JARON LANIER: Every new capability that people achieve can go either way, and no amount of technical prowess can make people better.

You know, that’s something that has to come from a different sensibility, a moral sensibility, an ethical sensibility, and that’s not a problem we can solve in the lab.

PAUL SOLMAN: Let’s hope it’s a problem we can solve in real life, though.

Oh, my God.

Or in whatever might take its place.