One Oculus Rift Application Facebook Never Expected

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

If a technology is powerful enough and it can be used for a wide range of applications, there’s no telling how people will use it in the future. That seems to be the case with Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset that lets users inhabit virtual worlds in a realistic way. ZDNet reports that the Norwegian army has begun testing the use of Oculus Rift headsets to give their tank drivers a better view of the outside world. Effectively, the headset can make it appear that the tank is see-through, giving drivers an unobstructed 360 degree view of their surroundings. Is this what Mark Zuckerberg had in mind when Facebook purchased Oculus earlier this year?

It’s clear that Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) knew the Oculus Rift had many untapped applications when it bought the company. Prior to the acquisition, the Oculus Rift had been targeted at the PC video game market, giving gamers a new way to immerse themselves in the virtual worlds of the games they currently play on monitors. But Facebook’s plans, according to Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe, reach well beyond traditional gaming.

In an interview with CNN, Iribe said, “If you’re putting on this pair of glasses and you’re going to be face-to-face communicating with people and you’re going to be jumping in and out of this new set of virtual worlds, this was going to be the largest MMO (massively multiuser online community) ever made … This is going to be an MMO where we want to put a billion people in virtual reality.”

Facebook wants to create an enormous virtual community using Oculus, but did it consider the possible military implications of the technology? Probably not. That’s the thing with wide-ranging technology: it can solve problems you didn’t know existed.

As for the Norwegian army, their problem was the situational awareness of their tank drivers. “I had been thinking about this for a long time — the idea was born back in 2011,” Major Ola Odden of Combat Lab, a concept development and experimentation unit at the Norwegian army’s Land Warfare Centre, told ZDNet. “The basic idea was that the driver should be able to drive in all directions, and be independent of any detailed instructions from the tank commander. To do that, the driver must be able to see everything around the vehicle, and that’s not possible today. Conventional solutions for this switch between cameras around the tank, and it is very hard to avoid blind spots that way.”

The new way requires no switching between cameras. Instead, the tanks will have cameras positioned on all four sides side of the vehicle. Each camera can see in 185 degrees which, when combined together, creates a full range 360 field of view. By digitally stitching the camera feeds together and streaming the resulting video to an Oculus Rift headset, drivers and others in the tank can simply turn their head to see their surroundings. That’s much better than clicking between pre-set camera feeds.

“By making the gunner and driver able to do their tasks more independently,” Odden said, “we’re creating the premise for true network-enabled capabilities. This provides a common, shared, and superior situation awareness, which makes us able to defeat the enemy.” The thing is, the enemies of Norway are not necessarily the enemies of Facebook. In fact, Facebook would probably prefer that no one died in war so more people could buy Oculus Rift headsets and join its virtual world.

The Norwegian army’s Oculus Rift tests offer an interesting lesson for Facebook, now that it owns the headset maker. When you release a product, you have to be prepared for how people are going to use it, even if those applications aren’t obvious. The question is, how much control will Facebook have when the Oculus Rift sees widespread release?

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