(NAVY TIMES) -- Driving a ship isn't like playing a video game, but it could be. The Office of Naval Research has gotten its hands on an Oculus Rift, a highly anticipated gaming gadget that could one day allow sailors to steer ships through immersive virtual reality.
Sailors could even use the next-generation headset to fly real drones or turn a ship's helm someday.
Researchers with Project BlueShark, a joint initiative with the University of Southern California's Institute of Naval Technologies and the Office of Naval Research's Swampworks division, are working with the 3-D headset and work station to determine how it could serve the fleet in the future.
"The [Oculus Rift] is being used to provide an interactive virtual environment, one that can quickly be modified to illustrate the latest interface concepts (e.g., command and control and telepresence)," Lt. Cmdr. Brent Olde, ONR's warfighter performance division deputy, told Navy Times. "These new interfaces will provide the next generation of war fighter an unprecedented degree of battlespace awareness, connectivity and user-friendly equipment utilization."
So what is it, exactly? The Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset designed for 3-D video gaming, whose seamless motion tracking has stoked gamers' expectations. It got its start on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, where the development company Oculus VR raised nearly $2.5 million in 2012 to finance the prototype.
Today, developers can buy one for $300; it is not yet sold to consumers. For the Navy's purposes, the headset is combined with a touchscreen board that simulates whatever controls the operator is working with.
In civilian tests, the headset has mostly been paired with video game controllers. In one case, BeAnotherLab, an art collective, did an experiment to show people what it was like to be of the opposite sex.
They put a man and a woman back to back and switched the displays in their headsets, so that they were seeing through the other person's eyes. Then they had them make an identical set of movements. While the woman touched her arm, her display played the man touching his arm, so to her, it looked as if she were the man.
The Navy won't be doing anything that mind-bending with the Oculus, but there is a possibility to take it to the real world.
"[Head-mounted displays] are used as a tool for demonstration; however, depending on the situation, in the future they could be used in controlling a ship or manipulating other user interfaces," Olde said.
Cool as that is, it won't be ready for the fleet any time soon. But Olde said BlueShark is sharing its experiences with Navy stakeholders.
"In particular, we have started dialogue with Navy vessels designed to adopt experimental technology and test prototype systems in an applied environment," he said in email responses to questions. "The most likely progression of this technology would be applying it to these experimental vessels and if results are positive, they will transition to fleet assets."
The Oculus is just one of Blue-Shark's projects. The initiative itself is creating a high-tech environment to demonstrate what operational work might look like in the future, and virtual reality could play a large part in that.
"There are several Command and Control interface applications we are planning to demonstrate using BlueShark: flexible helm control, unmanned vehicle control and intelligent data fusion for increased efficiency," Olde said.
BlueShark also is working on telepresence for shipboard maintenance and medical assistance, putting help on a screen when the person can't be there with you. And then there's the Intelligent Agent, a kind of virtual right-hand man.
"The intent is to demonstrate how intelligence systems in the future will provide assistance, from initial ship orientation to time critical, command decision aid," he said.
Hopefully, Olde added, some of these capabilities will make their way into the fleet within the next decade.