The tech awakens? Light sword demo shows how virtual reality could change the world

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https://youtu.be/5NDc7PF9MsU

You know the scene in "Star Wars," where Obi Wan places a helmet on Luke Skywalker's head, covering his eyes with a blast shield while he fends off a training ball with his lightsaber?

Well I was doing something like that Thursday – except instead of a helmet, I was wearing an Oculus Rift virtual reality (VR) headset and holding hand controllers used in the STEM motion capture system from Sixense.

The training sequence – which may remind you of the classic scene, but isn't actually a tie-in – was one of several virtual reality experiences Sixense was demonstrating this week at the Minneapolis offices of brand marketing agency SapientNitro, which has been working on innovative ways to use VR to benefit its clients.

I no doubt looked faintly ridiculous as I swung my arms at what was, from the perspective of everyone else in the room, absolutely nothing. (Editor's note: Definitely watch the video above.) It was every bit as fun as it looked.

How will VR be used?

The Oculus and STEM set-up are examples of what those in the industry consider to be "high end VR," linked to liquid-cooled PCs.

Sixense's director of business development Steve Hansted said much of the early software innovation is likely to come from the gaming industry.

Imagine playing Madden NFL as if you were the actual quarterback with 360 degree perspective, so you can look around at your teammates and a stadium filled with thousands of fans, before swinging your arm to fling a 60-yard bomb to the endzone.

Looking further into the future, the coupling of responsive motion tracking with VR perspective opens a whole new world for computer-simulated reality well beyond gaming.

Medicine, for example, could make use of technology that could allow surgeons to try tricky procedures virtually before actually doing them.

And with Minnesota's-own Target already said to be among those experimenting with virtual shopping, Sixense and SapientNitro's vRetail demonstration shows how retailers are likely to make use of the technology in the coming years.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-HPd4Q0xVs

I tried out its "toy store" program, which gives people the opportunity to select a toy helicopter, plane or drone from a shelf to fly around the room of a virtual apartment, with STEM's controls mimicking the controls of the drone itself.

The tech essentially provides consumers with the ability to have an authentic "try before you buy" experience from their living room.

VR in your pocket is already a reality

And VR isn't strictly an inaccessible and costly endeavor.

Mobile VR is readily available for anyone with an up-to-date smartphone, and doesn't require PC link needed for the "high-end" technology such as STEM and Oculus.

Most new phones are now "VR capable," allowing you to view high-quality videos and use interactive apps that gives you a 360-degree perspective.

Because your phone does most of the work, the tech that allows you to view VR isn't that expensive.

You can get a Google Cardboard (reminiscent of the old "Viewmasters") for just a few bucks, while Samsung's more complex Gear VR is less than $100, and is almost certainly going to be bundled into its new phone packages going forward.

 (Photo: Google Cardboard)

(Photo: Google Cardboard)

All you do is attach your phone in a holder, and launch a VR-friendly app or video that allows you look around as if you were actually there, selecting items using a finger-operated cursor, or the phone's eye recognition software.

The technology in your phones tracks your head and body movements, so you can look up, down, side-to-side and turn around as you explore.

SapientNitro's VP and global innovation lead Adrian Slobin said that with tech companies such as Google, Facebook, Samsung and Apple investing billions of dollars into the technology, it is almost certain to become a fixture in more and more households within the next 18 months to 2 years.

Companies jump on VR bandwagon

The hardware is there, now all that's needed is the software.

Slobin says companies have "anxiety" over the possibility they miss out on a growing medium in the same way some of them were slow to respond to the Internet, mobile technology and social media.

"Brands are no longer about the slogan, or the logo, or the products. It's about the experience and how customers relate to content," he said, "and VR is perfect for creating experiences that consumers want to have. It gives them an emotional connection and a psychological one."

SapientNitro is among those at the forefront trying to show the commercial benefits of VR, earlier this year launching an app called "The Apartment," as an example of how high-end retailers could sell their wares by letting people view in a computer-generated setting.

Here's a look at how it works.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5B1kwaeHTxI

Elsewhere, Forbes reports Tommy Hilfiger customers were able to watch the 2015 fall catwalk show in its stores using GearVR technology, while Volvo sent out a Google Cardboard to its customers so they could "test drive" its new XC90.

Even now though, developers are looking to the next stage: augmented reality – which Mashable notes places people not in a simulated representation of the world, but in an actual, real-time version of the world with which technology can interact.

CNBC notes this could pave the way in the future for practical uses such as automatically translating written foreign languages through a pair of AR glasses.

As Slobin – an Arsenal F.C. soccer fan – tells me, it could also transform the future of live sports events, with technology allowing viewers to watch games as if they were sitting there in the stands.

Given the money being invested and the seemingly infinite possibilities of the technology, the future is virtually here.

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