Virtual reality in action at Summit Youth Centre

DIFFERENT DIMENSION  The Oculus Rift works with computer software to support a variety of programs for entertainment and education. Photo by Dan Lewis.
DIFFERENT DIMENSION The Oculus Rift works with computer software to support a variety of programs for entertainment and education. Photo by Dan Lewis.

The Summit Youth Centre, located on the upper level of the Invermere Community Hall, may seem like an unlikely place for cutting-edge technology, but that is where I found myself on a stormy Friday afternoon, enamoured by the possibilities of virtual reality.

Upon climbing the stairs up to the youth centre for the first time, I met Dan Lewis, who teaches an Introduction to Computer Graphics after-school program for kids and teenagers, beaming from ear to ear. It was immediately evident Dan loves his job.

Dan teaches his young students about Photoshop, three-dimensional modelling and the incredible things that can already be done with virtual reality technology.

After chatting for a few minutes in the comfortable youth centre equipped with cushy couches, a pool table and a few computers, Dan pulled out what looked like fancy ski goggles. As he excitedly explained, the goggles are actually part of an Oculus Rift headset, which allows users to experience a location, situation or reality completely apart from their own.

With the help of a high-powered computer, the Oculus Rift and plenty of technological know-how, Dan has spent many evenings over the last few months showing his students what he says is the future of technology. Once Dan finished passionately explaining how the headset works with a computer camera to create an experience that was only previously imaginable in science fiction movies, it was time to try it out for myself.

When I pulled the goggles over my face and put on the headphones, I immediately felt separated from my physical location at the youth centre. I could not see or hear anything until Dan started the first program and I was suddenly transported to a different universe.

I started with a racing game where I controlled a futuristic flying vehicle somewhere in the vast scenery of space. Using arrow keys on the keyboard in front of me, I whizzed around a track, flinching as obstacles flew right past my head.

I thought the game was fairly entertaining until I heard a faint voice coming from Dans direction telling me to look around. Then, I thought the game was incredible. By turning my body 360 degrees, I could see the games complex setting all around me.

Everywhere I looked, there was an asteroid flying through space or a distant planet coming into view. These details helped me connect with the game and completely forget I was sitting on a desk chair and not in a space craft.

Next, Dan showed me an example of how the Oculus Rift can be used for educational purposes. The second program attempted to teach evolution in 12 minutes using impressive 3D models. This one was not exactly interactive in the sense that I was just meant to listen and observe, but I could look around and see plants, dinosaurs and animals moving freely.

I found I was much more inclined to listen and pay attention to the 12-minute video because there was always something to watch and look for. It became clear that the Oculus Rift could be used to help visual learners understand history, science and math in a way that is not currently available in schools.

Another particularly amazing program focused on the scale of all living things. By pressing the keyboards arrow keys, I could zoom in and out from the largest solar systems to the smallest bacteria. Though this program was not a game in the traditional sense, I found myself endlessly entertained by the realistic graphics and the inherent curiosity of scrolling between the biggest and smallest things in existence.

After pulling the Oculus Rift off and returning mentally to Invermere, Dan told me he believes virtual reality will become the norm for television, movies, architectural design and art. While I may not be as convinced as the lifelong fan, it is clear to me that virtual reality has come a long way from being used for mediocre amusement park attractions.

The Oculus Rift is more than a video game. Though it is still in its beta stage, the system effectively provides users with an unparalleled digital experience, which has educational, vocational and entertainment applications. When it becomes available for public purchase in 2016, expect to see more virtual reality integrated in real life.

For now, young valley residents have the unique opportunity to experience the Rift at the Summit Youth Centre in Invermere.

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