Yes, the US Navy has an Oculus Rift. More than one, in fact. In Washington, DC and Marina Del Ray, CA, two parallel laboratories are using virtual reality headsets to help the Navy dream up the next generation of interfaces. With them, future warfighters could drive a ship with full three-dimensional awareness of their surroundings, or repair high-tech ship parts while collaborating with their designer in real-time, thousands of miles away.
But BlueShark, a joint initative between the Swampworks division of the Office of Naval Research and the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, isn’t actually about virtual reality per se. According to Mark Bolas, one of the USC project directors, VR is the place where the Navy can reach out and touch user interfaces which might not be practical to build this decade, let alone this year, because technologies like holographic displays don’t yet exist at scale. “But we can mock them all up in the head-mounted display,” says Bolas.
In the picture above, according to the Office of Naval Research, a Marine is directing a virtual UAV to fly over a point of interest while gazing into the Rift and using a real touchscreen display. But that’s just one user interface, one possible use for the technology dreamed up so far. “The Navy’s really using it to figure out what the future sailor is going to expect in 15 years,” Bolas tells The Verge.
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The BlueShark helm. Clearly, someone was inspired by the Mozilla Firefox logo. Note the cameras attached to the ceiling for tracking objects.
The Oculus Rift isn’t the only VR headgear in the lab. This Wide5 HMD, developed by Fakespace Labs, has an even wider 140-degree field of view.
Glowing red LEDs allow this BlueShark system to track the user’s hands, head, and chair. The screen to his left is just an ordinary piece of glass, but it acts just like a giant touchscreen to anyone using the headset.
An interface for helm control of a ship. Note the position of his hands, floating above the controls a la Minority Report rather than touching them directly.
While virtual reality is a hot topic right now, BlueShark is primarily about immersive collaboration: a shared virtual world lets different people with different interfaces interact simultaneously. Here, three men collaborate to fix a robotic arm. After the data guru on the right sifts through 3D schematics with a touchscreen interface, the mechanical engineer at center pulls a 3D model apart, piece by piece, with a stylus. At left, the mechanic can flip down a pair of lenses to get a 3D view of the dissected model on a tablet before attempting fixes.