It was an unlikely afternoon, and I was standing in a skinny office somewhere near the Flatiron Building in Manhattan with an Oculus Rift strapped to my head. But I wasn't really there. I was almost a hundred miles away in Yale's rare book library. I felt a little sick, and I loved it.
Among other exciting things, the Oculus Rift makes teleportation easier than ever. Well, okay, not actual teleportation. But it's the best virtual reality headset out there, and the experience of using it is inevitably uncanny. Naturally, everybody's trying to figure out what to do with this new type of display, a piece of technology that's exciting enough to attract £1.17 billion from Facebook's coffers but still at least a year away from the consumer market.
YouVisit is a natural fit. The company makes virtual campus tours so that prospective students can see what the college of their choice is really like. But traditional virtual campus tours kind of suck. When I was applying to college, every school tried to do its own plugin-ridden version of a virtual tour, and the experience amounted to looking at carefully framed photos in a less convenient format.
YouVisit's tours, in their natural state, are already a few cuts above that. They feature panoramas, maps, basic information like tuition prices, as well as full fledged campus tours, complete with a virtual tour guide who's an actual student at that college. They're nice! But the addition of Oculus Rift makes them downright uncanny.
If you're lucky enough to have an Oculus Rift headset, you can go to YouVisit's website and experience a number of their campuses in a virtual reality setting. It's not like you can walk around them peeking around corners and in dorm rooms, though. You can't actually move at all. The feature is a clever use of their large cache of 360-degree photos that render nicely on the immersive display. Instead of dragging your mouse around to see what the other side of the football stadium looks like, you can crane your neck and spot the marching band.
I found myself in cavernous library, when the guys from YouVisit let me try out their new trick. It was disorienting at first. I'd only peered in an Oculus Rift once before, and there was a small audience of writers from other publications there to witness the weird face I was about to make. But when I pulled the ski goggle-like device onto my face, I disappeared to a cool, dark room in New Haven, where I was looking at one of the original publications of Uncle Tom's Cabin. It was thrilling in the nerdiest of ways.
Without even thinking about it, my mind took me back to the Packard Bell computer in my parents' house, where I applied for university. We lived in rural Tennessee, where a 14.4k modem and lots of patience for page load times were as close as I was going to get to the quaint brick buildings of the liberal arts colleges in New England, where I hoped to go. I did the crappy virtual tours and crashed Internet Explorer a bunch of times. I ordered the prospective student guide and gawked at the glossy photos. My parents always said that I'd have to figure out how to pay for it on my own, and the money I made washing dishes was never going to add up to a ticket to Connecticut.
Yesterday, when I was standing in the middle of Yale's campus—while actually standing in the middle of a conference room in New York City—YouVisit's proposition made immediate sense, beyond just a gimmick. A feature like this could really help sixth form students, especially those in remote locations, get a feel of what it's like at the campus of their choice. It's extra helpful for the kids who won't ever get a chance to visit.
But it's also a little bit lofty. YouVisit says that several colleges are securing Oculus Rift development kits of their own so they can send the headsets out with admissions officers on recruiting trips. Just imagine the clusterfrak that ensues when they post up in some high school library, and the kids line up to play with the cool gadget. Heck, you should've seen the smack of anticipation on my colleagues' faces, when we were waiting to try out the virtual campus tours ourselves. It's hard to reconcile the extent to which I was impressed by the technology and compelled by what it showed me.
I didn't expect to be startled by the experience, but I was. I was immediately imagining all of the other things people would want to tour in virtual reality. Indeed, YouVisit has been working with Fortune 500 companies and the Central Park Conservancy on Oculus-powered tours. They say their camera crew is efficient enough to go and shoot pretty much any location in a matter of hours. It's only a matter of time, I think, before Americans can strap an Oculus Rift to their head and float down the canals of Venice.
Walking back to the office after my brief tour of Yale, slightly motion sick, I felt wistful. College was fun. Books are great. Green-grassed quads are incredible. Maybe I should go back to school. But where would I go? What would I study? College was fun. Maybe I could just do that again.
I like that feeling. I like it when technology creates a new kind of experience, when it makes you wonder about your life. Everybody knows Oculus Rift is amazing. I just can't wait to see companies like YouVisit live up to all of its lofty potential.