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There was some surprise when Facebook paid over $2 billion for the company that makes the Oculus Rift virtual-reality goggles. After all, that company doesn't even make a profit. So what was Facebook thinking? Well, many virtual reality enthusiasts believe this may be a turning point for a technology that's been around for decades. They say it has the potential to transform medicine, teaching and the way that humans interact with computers. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: The first time that Mark Bolas donned a pair of virtual reality goggles was in 1988, at NASA Ames in Mountain View, California. Researchers were trying to figure out how to create a new way for computers and humans to interact.
MARK BOLAS: And it was one of those moments when you realize, my entire life is now going to be different because this is what I am going to do.
SYDELL: Over 25 years later, Bolas is one of the major researchers who has been toiling away, so far without success, trying to find a way to make virtual reality cheap and popular.
BOLAS: So welcome to what we call Blue Shark.
SYDELL: Bolas is now the director for mixed reality research at the University of Southern California. Among the people who once worked at this lab is Palmer Luckey, the 21-year-old founder of Oculus, the company purchased by Facebook. Bolas escorts me over to a raised platform with a thick glass desk in front of it. I strap on a pair of goggles and some specially wired gloves. With the goggles on, I see a virtual Navy officer in 3-D standing in front of me.
SENIOR CHIEF FOSTER: I am Senior Chief Foster, your virtual host. Blue Shark is a work in progress. Heck, I'm a work in progress.
SYDELL: Through the goggles, the space appears to be the deck of a ship, and the sheet of glass looks like a navigation control system.
FOSTER: I am going to show you how to use the helm and throttle controls to steer a course.
SYDELL: The wired gloves allow me to operate the system through touch. As I move, Foster explains what to do.
FOSTER: Now, select your favorite throttle control from the choices on screen and press OK.
SYDELL: I am not much of a captain, but Bolas says Chief Foster would get to know that about me.
BOLAS: He might've been a virtual character that's known you since you went to basic training. So he knows what you're good at. He knows what you're bad at. He knows when to suggest things to you. The idea's that you could have a virtual wing man, so to speak, with you at all times.
SYDELL: They're also experimenting with how to make people appear in front of you, virtually, in real time. So he says, imagine a ship deck - say the Enterprise from Star Trek, in one of those scenes where Captain Kirk is talking to his engineer, Scotty.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")
JAMES DOOHAN: (As Scott) Captain, the impulse engine's control circuits are fused solid.
WILLIAM SHATNER: (As Captain James T. Kirk) What about the warp drive control circuit?
BOLAS: Instead of talking over a little radio, trying to figure out what's going on, you can just bring Scotty up on the bridge and him answer your question virtually. So you're seeing his body. You're seeing his body language. Maybe, you're even seeing the engine room along with him. So you see exactly what Scotty's seeing, and you understand why it is that he's telling you you can't get warp power.
SYDELL: While this work is being funded by the Navy, Bolas says this kind of virtual communication could ultimately be part of workplaces or schools.
BOLAS: What Blue Shark really is is a research environment, where we're trying to figure out what the future of collaboration communication's going to be when we have all these immersive technologies.
SYDELL: This is just some of the work being done at USC, on uses for virtual reality. They're also working on helping soldiers, who suffer from posttraumatic stress syndrome, get emotional release through reliving their experiences. And they're developing immersive documentaries that allow people to experience what it's like to live through a war in a place, like say, Syria. But another key part of the work here has been bringing down the price of virtual reality gear, which, until recently, could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bolas says, in 2012, there was a simple, yet big, breakthrough. They realized the lenses on cheap handheld magnifying glasses, the kind that sell for $10 at a drugstore, were perfect for a virtual reality goggles. Bolas turns one over backwards.
BOLAS: That little trick of flipping the lens and finding this magnifier was a really big breakthrough for the field because...
SYDELL: You're kidding.
BOLAS: ...No - because lenses are expensive to design and make, and we went through a whole bunch to find one that hit that immersive sweet spot. And this one did it for us.
SYDELL: So the Oculus Rift, purchased by Facebook, sells a developer's kit with a pair of goggles for $300. Though the popular press has talked about using the Oculus for video games, Oculus Rift inventor, Palmer Luckey, worked at this lab for a reason. He sees the future more like Mark Bolas. Luckey says he sold his company to Facebook because it will give him the resources to experiment.
PALMER LUCKEY: So we can do things, like buy fully custom parts that we wouldn't have been able to afford before, or guarantee we will be able to hire enough people to make all the technology we need. We can just focus on building what we need to build, shipping it at cost - and at least for the moment, relying on Facebook to keep us going.
SYDELL: Mark Bolas says, after years of working on shoestring research budgets, he was excited to hear that Facebook bought Oculus.
BOLAS: I have waited 25 years for something like the Facebook acquisition to happen. That's a huge success moment for my lab. We are here to train and educate the next generation of people to go after new technologies and new content and change the world. And that just happened.
SYDELL: Bolas says if Facebook and Oculus finally succeed in popularizing virtual reality, he does have some worries. He and his researchers sometimes think about Dr. Frankenstein and wonder how the world in their virtual creation will get along. Laura Sydell, NPR News.
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