What is Virtual Reality – “VR” – and Why Should I Care?
Nintendo LABO VR? Facebook Spaces? CNN 360? Now ‘Oculus Quest’ and ‘Valve Index’ – what’s it all mean, Billie Jean?
If you are wondering what all the fuss is about with this thing called VR, but have no real idea what it’s about, this article is for you.
Who in their life hasn’t, at some point, wished they could fly, or perhaps climb Mount Everest, swim in the great blue hole of Belize, or perhaps explore remote parts of the world unreachable by standard travel?
Or perhaps you wished to become a doctor and wanted to train on your patient’s specific body part many times before you actually faced them, with quivering hands, in the operating room? Perhaps you are a construction worker and want to understand the various design and build stages of a new project long before the first brick or girder has been laid.
Maybe you are far away from your loved ones, friends or co-workers, or possibly a new client, and you have always felt that normal telephone or even video conferencing isn’t quite the same a being in the “presence” of the other. Maybe they are dead and you wish to stand in their presence, one more time. Or many more.
All of these things are possible with the new medium of Virtual Reality.
Seeing is Believing
This medium is one that truly must be experienced first hand in order to fully grasp its power and potential, and to understand why it has become the tech world’s buzz word for the past five years (writing this in 2019, the holy year of Blade Runner), attracting massive investments from Facebook, Microsoft, Intel, Qualcomm, HTC, Apple, HP, Acer, ASUS, AMD, Nvidia and many more.
What is the difference between “VR” and the media we already know – like radio, television, and even 3D movies?
Imagine that, instead of simply the width of a widescreen TV, you also extend it vertically. Now imagine that the experience surrounds you completely, on all sides. And when you turn your head or lean forward or back, or lean side to side, the horizon, or the floor, the floor or horizon maintain their position.
Now also imagine that because of this effect things feel as though they have an actual dimension proportional to you. So a table looks and “feels” as though it is in front of you at the correct size and scale. Of course – you could enlarge it or shrink it down if the application allows, but for the sake of my explanation – imagine that it feels correct – a 1:1 size to your own body.
Now imagine that you could walk all the way around that table and that it would maintain its size and position, even while you encircle it. Your brain is fooled very quickly into believing that it might be real.
In fact, it only takes a minute or two, before you have completely become unaware of what is happening outside of the headset you are wearing to experience this.
More Than Meets the Eye
Now, privacy issues aside, imagine that anything could be created or represented inside of such a world – a fully interactive world that can convince your brain, and the vestibular system that helps you keep your internal sense of position, movement and balance, that it is present.
You could, instead of showing children boring pictures of the pyramids at Giza, put them INSIDE of the pyramids, where they could feel the enormity and layout of the these marvelous, ancient tombs.
You could bring the classroom to any city, town, village, forest, mountain, time, in the world or civilization and give them a memory that they could feel as if they were there in person. Using satellite imaging, photogrammetry, volumetric technology, machine learning and computer vision, almost any part of the world can be extruded into a three-dimensional location you can fly through. Some authors have used Google Earth VR to virtually visit the locations they write their novels about, never having set foot in the place, while being so convincing that their friends ask them why they didn’t stop by for tea.
With this incredible power to create spatialized, embodied experiences, comes great responsibility of course. Just as we are able to amuse, astound, educate and impress others with the media, we can also wound, terrify, scar and indoctrinate them.
The Problem With Empathy
In the early stages of VR, many wistfully referred to it as an ‘Empathy Machine” – with the positive connotation that it might help us to feel something – perhaps compassion and sympathy, for others in less fortunate positions. Of course, this is a risky assumption to make, for it could just as easily create “empathy” for dark and evil ideologies. Empathy, of course, means to understand another’s situation, feelings, and motives.
VR could be used for real torture, and it could be used to train the next Olympic champions.
Furthermore, though videogames may be full of violence, many academic studies have shown that such acts do not, in fact, have a correlation to real-life acts of violence. In fact, for many, they can serve as a healthy examination of feelings, a way to vent stress and anger, and also learn methods for managing failure and frustration while also building camaraderie.
Out of Body Experience
Does this change, however, when we are inside of an embodied experience? The data would suggest that no, it would not make us more violent, but it might make us more affected by the acts of violence. We may, for example, process every zombie we kill differently in VR than in a traditional TV frame. We may hesitate, before we fire our weapons at people in VR, than we would playing Call of Duty or Borderlands in traditional TV frames.
There is a lot of data that we take in every day that we are not conscious of. Though we see and hear and smell thousands of things every day, our prefrontal lobe only registers some of these data. VR and 360-degree video are similar – by surrounding us with data, we are processing more information than we necessarily register at first. But the body remembers, and so does our subconscious. What experiences will we create the will remain with the receiver, perhaps for a lifetime?
Perhaps more importantly, what could YOU share about YOUR experience? What can we learn, from you? What part of your dream could you transfer, so that others, now or not yet alive, could better understand about the human experience?
After 5 years of rapid iteration, jagged market awareness, failures and successes, in 2019 we have moved from clunky and cumbersome setups to all-in-one, wire-free (“tetherless”), self-contained and motion-tracked VR that can be had for the Facebook-subsidized price of only USD$400.
And yes, a pair of them will empower you and your loved ones to simultaneously experience these worlds in tandem from your living room, without the need of a desktop computer, tripods or other complex setups.
In 2015 I created the FIVARS Festival of International Virtual & Augmented Reality Stories to investigate how this new media could be used to tell stories in new ways. In 2016 I created the VRTO Virtual & Augmented Reality World Conference & Expo to explore the ethics, best practices and industry that would define these media and advancements for future generations.
I hope you will join me at these events in Toronto this year, 2019, to learn more.
Los Angeles, April 30th 2019