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Virtual-reality goggles aren't just for gaming

| Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The $300 goggles that Irvine, Calif.-based Oculus VR began shipping to software developers in March deliver a glimpse of a futuristic technology long awaited by video gamers. They allow a player to step inside a computer-created virtual world.

What might be most eye-opening, though, is how the Oculus Rift goggles are finding their way into non-gaming applications.

Architects in Michigan have found ways to visualize houses that haven't been constructed yet. A manufacturer in Indiana sees a way to save money by demonstrating its products without having to transport them across the country. NASA believes it could use virtual reality to let scientists, and the public, explore the landscape on the surface of Mars without setting foot in a spaceship.

The goggles are still a work in progress. In its current version, the Rift delivers a relatively low-resolution experience that doesn't yet track the full range of human motion. As a result, some people get motion sickness.

Oculus is using $16 million in venture capital it raised in June to hire virtual reality experts to solve those and other problems. One of their tasks is to get feedback from users of the more than 35,000 developer kits they've sold to date. Oculus is counting on those developers to write the software that puts people in other worlds once it becomes consumer-ready.

Jeff Norris is a computer scientist leading the Mission Operations Innovation Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., a lab focused on projects that can change the way humans interact with and control spacecraft.

“One of the things we're investigating is the use of immersive displays for looking at data returned from spacecraft. We're looking at virtual reality technology as a way for our scientists and engineers to better understand the environment around a spacecraft and then better control that spacecraft.

“But we're also looking at these technologies as a way to share the journey of these missions with the public. The fact that (inexpensive devices like the Rift) are becoming more accessible to a broader audience helps both those goals.”

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