Virtual reality, the term has been around for a long time but its cropping up more and more recently. It has been used to describe a myriad of different technologies over the years. Anything from a TV strapped to your face to the worlds featured in video games. Even now there are a range of different experiences being touted as Virtual Reality and even Augmented Reality so to start off let’s clear things up a bit.
What does Virtual Reality mean now?
To keep things simple we are only going to talk about the big hitters. While a large number of devices are available, there are only really three fully developed systems. The Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and the Sony Playstation VR (previously know as Project Morpheus). All three of these systems feature directional tracking, positional tracking and some form of motion control. What this really means is that unlike anything before, VR puts you inside worlds rather than showing them to you on a display. If you turn your head left, you see the left side of a virtual room, if you move your body right, you get closer to virtual objects on your right. This effect has recently been perfected to the point that it completely fools your brain. When wearing one of these devices the outside world is shut off and replaced by something completely new. Everything you have ever watched before VR is just that, watched, with VR you are inside, and always interacting.
How is Virtual Reality different from Augmented Reality?
Ever played pokemon GO or used one of those apps that turns you into a dog and makes you spew rainbows? (trick question, obviously you have) That’s Augmented Reality. Anything that adds digital images over the top of the reality somehow is AR. When talking about AR in relation to VR the effect is the same but instead of a screen you look through transparent lenses with digital images projected over the top. If everything you see is replaced by digital images then AR becomes VR and this is where things get a bit tricky. So for the purpose of this article will refer to all this as VR.
It’s different to anything you have ever experienced
Unless you have tried full motion tracking VR for yourself, then the experience is almost impossible to describe. Before my Oculus Rift was delivered I had read all the tech magazines, all the press releases and all the hands on reviews. Nothing can truly prepare you for what you will see. When you look down at the ground it’s really there. If you turn around, you really turn round. There are always things in front of you, behind you and above you, from tiny insects to distant mountains to vicious zombie hordes. Everything in Virtual Reality seems as it should be, the ground, the objects, the creatures all seem to really “exist”, you can tell how big they are and how far away they are. No matter how fast you move or which direction you turn you will never catch the smoke and mirrors. This new world is just there, with you completely enveloped in it. Modern VR is immersive like nothing before.
VR games are not just normal games in VR
From joysticks and gamepads to the trusty keyboard and mouse, gaming has always required you to learn some technique. Much like the Nintendo Wii however, VR motion control is far more natural than traditional video gaming controls. If you have hands then you already know how to play many VR games; developers are using this new medium to turn traditional gameplay on its head. The range of games availble in VR is already broader than any other platform and it’s just getting started. From 3D sculpting programs and meditation apps to space fighting and racing simulators. First person shooters, platformers, 3D geometry puzzles, traditional puzzle games, abstract 3D space experiences and music rhythm games there really is something for everyone. You also wont find many of the tired repetitive sequels that plague much of the gaming industry. With the experience itself being the main drawcard developers seem to be taking the oportunity to break the shackles of the rehash/re-release profit cycle. And gaming in VR is all the better for it.
It’s not just for Gamers
While Video Games are more naturally suited to VR than anything else, movies and other media are on the way. Google recently partnered with IMAX to develop a new camera system designed for filming cinema quality VR experiences. IMAX have even opened a VR arcade in LA and are working on an extremely wide field-of-view headset. It will be some time before we see full length movies in VR but for now there are quite a few short films available. Already Winning Emmy’s and featuring in major film festivals these short films are validating VR as a new and unique art form. If you ever get a chance to see these films you will understand why. Dear Angelica is my top recommendation, made entirely in a VR art program, beautiful pictures are drawn all around you that move and change as you watch. A truly breathtaking experience that explores the concept of how we remember people in our dreams. An experience that could only properly work in VR.
It will change the way you interact online
While being shut off is essentially what makes VR so powerful it can also open you up to the world like never before. When Facebook acquired Oculus in 2014 they made it clear that they are still a social media company and VR will be part of that. There are a great range of social apps and games already available. Imagine sitting around a virtual campfire playing games with your friends and then going inside to watch films in your customized virtual home theater. Or hanging out in a retro arcade playing virtual pool or table tennis with a bunch of people you just met. Every movement you make in these apps is perfectly translated into the virtual space. Body language, your actual real world body language can be seen by the other participants and the effect is so realistic people often feel nervous their first time. On that note, these apps have reportedly been very helpful for those with social issues, providing just enough of a barrier to let them explore being natural around other people. Just another of the many surprising ways VR is set to change our world. Truly you never need to feel alone in VR.R.
Learning in VR will be better and cheaper
Among other things, the practical application of VR is set to revolutionize education. Right now medical programs are already being developed. Imagine a fully animated, anotomically correct heart beating right in front of you. You can move around it or even go inside it to see all the intricate detail in full working order. No donor organs, no bio-hazards, just free, reusable organs that can simulate any medical problem for live study. Downloading a complete recreation of the latest multi-million dollar MRI and training students in real time, without any cost or risk to expensive equipment. With only a head mounted display (HMD) and a set of motion controllers you could practice any task, any time, as many times as you need, and it can all be downloaded from the internet. The cost benefit alone for education will be phenomenal.
You will look awesome
While the PSVR does have a whiff of the cheap and plastic about it (white is so 2005 Sony) most headsets have a very sleek and stylish design. To prevent you running into the walls they also use a holographic grid system, when you get to close to a wall the grid pops up and you know where to stop. These systems are highly accurate and tend to make the otherwise blindfolded VR user appear to have a 6th sense of the world around them. And once you start to experience the virtual world, thoughts of how you look in the real world tend to fade very quickly and you become a VR ninja. Worst case scenario, you become youtube famous while showing off the $800 worth of sexy future-tech strapped to your face.
Google, Facebook, Valve, Sony, Samsung and Microsoft are among the huge list of companies investing billions into VR and AR. Financial analysts predict the industry will be worth $120 billion by the end of this decade. The applications for VR include nearly every aspect of your life; entertainment, education, engineering, design, fine art, retail and marketing even therapy and exercise. Even most of the opposition to VR say the current hardware is the problem. The day we have direct retinal projectors that cost as much as a cheap smartphone this technology will be ubiquitous. Will you find yourself among the people who thought personal computers would never catch on? Or will you join the revolution before it’s to late?