Virtual Reality: Peering into the Future
The internet has been abuzz with virtual reality (VR) this year. So far, we've seen people challenge their fear of heights and fall victim to horrible pranks. It may seem like a fad, but virtual reality isn't going anywhere; big companies like Apple, Facebook, and Sony are pouring money into this new medium, and it is here to stay. But for the VR newbie, experiencing and producing VR content can be daunting.
When people talk about virtual reality, they're talking about one of two things – computer generated landscapes or 360° videos. Strictly speaking, virtual reality only refers to computer generated images, but VR is commonly used to describe both. Dreams of Dali is one of my favourite examples of VR, and it's meant to take viewers into Salvador Dali's mind (you should use Google Chrome or check this out on your phone for the best experience).
This is one of the better examples of VR and it's clearly computer generated, which requires a lot of 3D modelling experience. It's easily accessible through YouTube, though it was designed for the Oculus headset.
YouTube and Facebook are the places where VR is most commonly found because those platforms are already familiar to users. But there are many other ways to access virtual reality. You ultimately have three choices when it comes to experiencing VR. You can use a laptop and watch VR content on YouTube, Facebook, and other VR websites, or you can do the same on your mobile. You can also use a Head Mounted Device (HMD), which is basically a set of goggles through which you can enter VR experiences.
You can use your smartphone with Google Cardboard and access VR experiences online or through VR apps. The Cardboard costs about $20 and is the cheapest HMD on the market. It works well, but is a low-quality HMD without many additional features. If you want to watch VR content without really interacting with things in that space, this is probably the right choice for you. If you're looking for more immersive and interactive experiences, try a different device.
If you have a Samsung Galaxy S6 or S7, you can use it with the Samsung GearVR. It costs $99 and offers a much higher quality experience than the Cardboard. Using the Oculus App, you can download videos, games, and other experiences that range from VR Temple Run to experiencing solitary confinement in a prison. It has limited interactivity through a touchpad on the side of the goggles, and you can't walk around the space easily.
The bigger and more intense HMDs are the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. Their consumer models were released earlier this year, and they are the standard for the industry. Each needs to be connected to a computer with substantial processing power, so they aren't easily portable. The Oculus Rift allows users to walk around a virtual space using a joystick and they can interact with objects around them. It's ideal if you have limited space in your house or don't really want to walk and crawl around the room. It's currently selling for $600.
My personal favourite is the HTC Vive, which tracks your movement around the room so you can actually walk around other worlds and feel completely immersed in a new environment. It costs $800, but offers the most believable experience. Don't believe me? Here's someone's first try at a zombie apocalypse game on the HTC Vive.
But VR isn't all fun and games, it has applications in many fields. It could revolutionize the way we create 3D objects from building virtual environments inside virtual reality to designing buildings and other structures. It can be used as an education tool (imagine practicing surgical procedures in virtual reality before doing them on actual patients), and can be used in therapy to help people get over their fears. It can also play a big role in journalism, as it is the ultimate empathy machine.
Thanks to television and the internet, we're no longer a world away from people in conflict. With VR, you could be transported to those places and really understand what it's like to live there. However, the immersive nature of VR has brought up many concerns; what if people get so immersed that they experience PTSD from graphic experiences? How will VR influence our memories and what we think we have actually experienced versus what we have seen in a virtual world? Another concern is how advertising will adapt to virtual reality. It will likely become even more immersive and entertaining, and some people have questioned how easily people could be influenced by VR content (imagine if it fell into bad hands).
We still haven't figured out how to use VR as a completely new medium rather than a new form of TV, which has been a persistent problem in media history. When film was first introduced, people started to film plays instead of creating content tailored to this new medium, and we're seeing that today with VR. One of the first major media outlets to use 360° videos was Discovery, and they've done a lot of great work with it, but are still figuring out how to create content that works for VR.
Discovery is using regular video techniques on a new medium. The fast and hard cuts from one shot to another don't fit the experience of 360° videos. The whole point is to be able to look around and feel immersed in a new environment – how can someone do that in only two seconds? We need to shift our standards and create content that is geared towards VR instead of copy/pasting our old media content into a completely new medium.
On a tangent, augmented reality has also made incredible strides, and Microsoft released the HoloLens developer's kit earlier in the year. With it, you can place holograms in the room and walk around them. Here's one of my incredibly professional first tries with the HoloLens.
The advantage it has over VR is that you can actually see your surroundings. It can be disorienting to be completely removed from the room that you're in, and is honestly a little bit frightening if you start hearing things shift in the room while you're in VR. The HoloLens has not been released to the public, but there's great potential for work in many sectors. Much like VR, it brings things into very close proximity, and can help create more empathy. You can watch a reporter interview refugees on television, but imagine seeing a refugee in your living room and hearing their story. Much like television changed perceptions on war during the Vietnam War, I expect VR and AR will change our perspectives. AR and VR can also bring you closer to people who live away from you. With the HoloLens, 'holoportation' has become a reality.
What's really important at this point is to recognize that we have the ability to define this new medium. No boundaries have been set and it's really up to us to figure out how it can (and should) be used. For now, anything with the label 'VR' or '360° Video' is going to be clicked on and seen as revolutionary, but we are quickly passing that period in time. How will VR impact our media, society, and even our relationships? What impact do we want it to have? Now is the time to decide.
We are at a pivotal point in VR's history where it is just making the mainstream. It's had a convoluted story up to this point, starting as early as the 18th century. If you want some background information on how we got to this point in the development of VR as a medium, check out this timeline.