Virtual Reality – Just Getting Started

 
VR  technology is improving fast rapidly and the first few waves of apps and games are still figuring out how to make the most of it.

Until recently, virtual reality had been something of a fantasy for storytellers and technologists. As long ago as 1935, American science fiction writer Stanley G Weinbaum described something like virtual reality in a short story called Pygmalion’s Spectacles.

“But listen, a movie that gives one sight and sound. Suppose now I add taste, smell, even touch, if your interest is taken by the story. Suppose I make it so that you are in the story, you speak to the shadows, and the shadows reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it. Would that be to make real a dream?”

Technologists might still be working on smell and taste, but Albert Ludwig’s “magic spectacles” eerily foreshadow the current prominence for headsets and 360-degree games, videos and virtual worlds.

Since Ludwig’s magic spectacles found their way into print, there have been decades of experimentation around virtual reality, from the first head-mounted VR system in the late 1960s to the first commercial products in the 1980s – not to mention Hollywood’s interpretation in the1992 film The Lawnmower Man, which shaped mainstream perceptions of virtual reality, or VR, for some time afterwards.

The current age of virtual reality began in 2010, when American teenager Palmer Luckey created the first prototype of a VR headset that would evolve into the Oculus Rift. Two years later, he launched a $250,000 Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to commercialise it – and $2.4m of pledges later, the tech industry’s interest in VR was reborn. Two years after that, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, liked the Rift so much he bought the company for $2bn.

Several competitors have emerged since then, from the HTC Vive and Sony’s PlayStation VR to smartphone-powered headsets such as Samsung’s Gear VR and Google Cardboard. Meanwhile, hundreds of developers are making VR games and apps, film-makers are exploring the potential for documentaries and animation, and Facebook and YouTube have jumped on the bandwagon with 360-degree videos.

But if you’re new to virtual reality, where should you start? In the absence of a passing professor with magic specs, here’s everything you need to know about hardware, apps and games.

The Basics

The most important piece of a virtual reality kit is the headset, a device like a thick pair of goggles that goes over your eyes. The more expensive, higher quality headsets need to be connected to a computer to run apps and games, while some cheaper ones use a cellphone clipped to the front of the headset.

All headsets need to be used alongside a good quality pair of headphones, and there are other optional accessories from hand controllers to treadmills that are all designed to enhance your simulated experience of being in another world. Hand controllers translate your real-world gestures into whatever game or application you’re using, although standard gaming joypads can also be used.

VR devices have their own app stores, similar to smartphone app stores, where you can browse and download games and apps. Some of these stores are accessed using the device itself, while others, the VR section of the Steam digital games store, for example, can be browsed on your computer.

360 vs Virtual Reality

The terms “360” and “virtual reality” are often used interchangeably, but there are important differences. The 360-degree photos and videos are panoramic pics and videos that have been stitched together, so you can turn your head to look around you. But these aren’t virtual worlds: you don’t have free movement to explore them as you do in full virtual reality experiences.

All VR devices offer a mixture of both, however: you can watch 360 videos or explore virtual worlds with Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard.

Augmented Reality vs Virtual Reality

There are other headsets that let you experience digital wizardry but offer a different experience called augmented reality.

While virtual reality is about immersing you in an entirely virtual world, viewed through a screen in your headset, the real world outside you isn’t part of the experience, at least not until you trip over the cat or accidentally knock out your child while immersed elsewhere. But augmented reality, as the name suggests, is about augmenting or adding to reality – another reality. You might be looking at your cat or up your street, but there could be digital characters and content overlaid on them.

Glass, the hi-tech spectacles launched by Google in 2014, were an AR device, but the company has given up on trying to sell them as a mainstream idea. More hardware is on the way, however: Microsoft’s HoloLens will be the augmented reality equivalent of PlayStation VR and with a similar emphasis on gaming; the popular Minecraft has been one of the key demos for it.

Virtual Reality beyond Gaming

Games loom large in modern-day VR, partly because the original Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR headsets were made primarily for gamers, and also because games are the most easily understandable entertainment category to show off this technology. But as Mark Zuckerberg explained after announcing Facebook was buying Oculus VR, there’s a lot more to this than just games.

“This is just the start. After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face to face, just by putting on goggles in your home,” wrote Zuckerberg.

“This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”

Journalism and Film-Making

Hundreds of developers are working on VR games, but there is lots of activity around other kinds of entertainment and media too. Journalists, film-makers and a growing number of documentary-makers are using 360-degree cameras to find new angles on stories, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Film-maker Chris Milk set up his virtual reality company in 2014 to produce and distribute VR documentaries, and offers films shot in New York, Cuba and even Syria. “I’m not interested in the novelty factor,” Milk told the Guardian in 2015. “I’m interested in the foundations for a medium that could be more powerful than cinema, than theatre, than literature, than any other medium we’ve had before to connect one human being to another.”

Traditional media companies have also experimented with VR journalism, from the New York Times VR films to the Guardian’s 6x9 project, which explores solitary confinement. As the cost of shooting and editing VR footage comes down, expect to see more media companies exploring the potential.

Social Media

When Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was to buy Oculus, he said that virtual reality could be the next big social platform and connect more than a billion people. That seems a contradiction when the current version of software being created for these headsets is focused on solo experiences while wearing a device that isolates you from the people around you.

Yet some companies are trying to make VR more social. Oculus has launched “Social Beta” software that enables people to watch online video services Twitch and Vimeo in a virtual cinema with other people. It has also shown off Toybox, a prototype virtual toy-room where two people can interact with a range of objects together.

Tech startups are exploring social VR too. AltspaceVR wants people to “be together in a more natural way than a phone call, text or video chat” by creating avatars and wandering around its virtual worlds, and is available for some headsets already. Its rival vTime is available for Gear VR, Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard, styling itself as a “sociable network” for people to meet up for avatar-based chat.

Sports and Music

Would you watch a football match or music concert in a virtual world? A number of companies hope so, and are busy building the technology.

NextVR is focusing on sport and entertainment, and has already worked on the US Open tennis tournament and several boxing matches, as well as a live Coldplay gig. It is preparing to produce a series of music concerts with live promoter Live Nation.

Tourism

One of the key selling points for VR technology is its ability to put you in places you’re unlikely to visit in the flesh, whether too expensive, too dangerous, out of bounds because of mobility issues or just because you don’t like flying.

You can already use VR to climb Everest, explore the Grand Canyon, take a gondola ride in Venice and watch a range of startling 360-degree videos published by wearable-cameras firm GoPro from around the world. Looking even further afield, Mars 2030 will let you wander around the surface of Mars.

Oculus VR sees the potential in virtual travel. “There’s clearly value in real-world experiences: going to do things. That’s why we have field trips. The problem is that the majority of people will never be able to do the majority of those experiences,” claimed its founder Palmer Luckey in 2015.

“People could say: ‘But visiting France virtually will never be the same as visiting Paris in the real world.’ Well, it might not be the same. What matters a lot more is that everybody is able to experience it.”

Medical and Therapeutic

Virtual reality technology is also being explored by the healthcare industry. Medical Realities is a company using VR, AR and games to train medical students, with its Virtual Surgeon programme enabling them to experience operations from the surgeon’s perspective. The company live-streamed an operation earlier this year to test its tech. Osso VR, meanwhile, has developed surgery simulation for trainees, which works with Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
The Los Angeles Cedars-Sinai hospital is also exploring whether VR can have therapeutic value, helping patients relax by flying above Iceland in a helicopter or swimming with whales, while MindMaze is making VR software that could play a role in the rehabilitation of stroke, spinal-cord injury and amputee patients.

Adult Porn Entertainment

Well, this was inevitable. Porn producers are famous early adopters of new audio/visual technology, and that trend has continued into VR. From point-of-view videos to animated sex simulations – and even a dedicated VR category on popular site PornHub, if there’s money to be made from virtual reality, chances are the adult-entertainment industry will find it first. Even if the results are “cold, silly, downright terrifying” for some viewers.

What’s Next?

As a technology, virtual reality already has decades of experimentation (and hype) behind it, even if it is still early days for this latest generation of devices. That means you can expect the technology to improve rapidly, while the first few waves of apps and games are still figuring out how to make the most of it.

There’s a good argument for waiting until the technology, and the content created for it, is more established, more compelling and cheaper. But equally, there’s delight to be had in being one of the first to explore a whole new virtual world of entertainment, information and communication, as thousands of developers, games designers and film-makers explore the medium and its new creative potential.

Whether you’re an enthusiast, a sceptic, or somewhere in the middle, 2017 is going to be a big year in figuring out the real potential for this technology. When your grandkids ask where you were virtual reality took off, what will you say?

Guardian:     Virtual Reality - The Next Wave:

 

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