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The Next Old Thing

Illustration Spur Design

Getty Images (Michelangelo)

Getty Images (Michelangelo)

The Technology: Virtual Reality
The Product: Oculus Rift
The Forebear: Michelangelo

Entering the Sistine Chapel can be a disorienting experience, largely because you have essentially stepped into the Bible. To the left of you there’s Moses having a punch-up with some shepherds (Sandro Botticelli), to the right there’s a dog and a cat competing for table scraps at the Last Supper (Cosimo Rosselli). And overhead, of course, there are the vivid frescoes of Michelangelo, which complete the illusion of total immersion in the stories being told.

It’s fair to say that Michelangelo was at the forefront of one of the most remarkable examples of virtual reality ever produced. Rather than merely providing instruction or inspiring wonder, the paintings in the chapel were intended to create an alternate world. We can only imagine what these artists might have dreamed up with an Oculus Rift at their disposal.

This crowdfunded virtual reality headset, slated to hit the market this summer, is primarily for immersive gaming, but the device has the tech sector buzzing over its potential uses. Archeologists could survey ancient ruins. Thrillseekers could climb Mount Everest. We could visit Mars.

More intriguing, perhaps, is the prospect that we could mix and match what’s virtual and what’s not. William Steptoe, a senior research associate at University College London, has explored this possibility by mashing up the Oculus Rift with motion capture technology—the sort used by the Xbox Kinect—creating a hybrid that could allow people to “beam” themselves into our homes from wherever they are.

“It is taking a different approach to Skype, where you’re talking to a screen,” Steptoe explains. “You could talk to a relative in another country, and it would appear as if they were in the same room.” While the technology is very much in the R&D phase, he adds, “we’re probably just two years away from a ‘beaming-enabled’ room in a typical home.”

But, as Steptoe points out, the potential applications of “enhanced mediated communication” don’t stop there. It’s not a massive leap, after all, from having a face-to-face with your aunt in Des Moines to having Russell Crowe doing a bit from Gladiator in the living room while One Direction performs a private show upstairs.

In fact, throw in a little AI and CGI magic and we won’t even have to wonder what Michelangelo would have made of this—we can ask him.

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