How Virtual Reality Will Change Your Everyday Life
The first time you guide an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset over your eyes, carefully mounting its clever headphones to your ears, you’re transported into an old airstream, every corner filled with throwback details.
Though whole thing errs on the side of pixel-y, someway, somehow, you’re immersed. A little WALL-E-esque robot peeks from behind a corner, waving at you nervously. You wave back a virtual arm, and welcome it closer.
Soon, the two of you are passing each other toys, shooting rockets, and gazing up at a star-filled ceiling.
Later, you find yourself in a toybox-themed shooting range, pointing your shrink ray at any and every object. Then, you’re pulling yourself around the zero-gravity of a deeply immersive space simulation – and developing a worryingly human bond with your polygonal co-worker. Hours inevitably pass. A A-rex is running toward you in a dimly-lit museum; an alien inspects you curiously on a foreign planet.
This, say VR’s pioneers, is the Trojan Horse. First, millions of people will be entertained by VR. But soon, they’ll be made more productive by VR, more skilled, more connected, more fulfilled.
Or so the thinking goes.
Peek around the world of virtual – or augmented – reality, and the future mightn’t seem as exciting as it’s been hyped up to be.
Across dozens of industries, through a slew of apps and headsets, businesses have been trying to harness the medium pitched to be the future of entertainment and education. In reality, maybe the most notable recent use of augmented reality is a clunky IKEA app that claims to enable shoppers to pre-plan their living rooms by placing virtual Swedish furniture in their homes. (GQ only succeeded in placing an over-scaled couch atop its coffee table.)
We hear shouts, frequently, about an upheaval in the gaming world – it’s yet to really take hold.
Analytics firm Greenlight Insights projects that the global VR industry will increase its revenues tenfold by 2021 – to a monstrous $75 billion.
And look: the first visit into true virtual reality is an undeniable thrill. The foundations of interaction and tactility are clearly there – it’s a marvel. But without viable, practical use cases, it’s difficult to imagine that the sector can fly the way it ought to.
In California, teams are working on what they consider to be the first few proofs of concept – and their ideas have already been implemented the world over.
This time, rather than cashed-up consumers, hospitals and universities have been the early adopters. Led by Facebook – who, in 2014, acquired Oculus, a leading VR headset manufacturer, for over $2 billion – the tech has found its way into places curiouser and curiouser.
Mark Zuckerberg has made no attempt to dampen his expectations for VR, post-acquisition. "If you can’t think of any way that your reality can be better, then you are not thinking hard enough," Zuckerberg said at a conference in San Jose last year. His goal? A billion people immersed in a virtual reality world.
This time, the tech world wants to alter the way we meet, learn, train – even the way we work.
The big question is clear. Can these developers get that which has proved more elusive than anything: adoption?
Crash Bandicoot was created over 20 years ago – a wily, perpetually-spinning video game protagonist whose homage to predecessors like Mario and Sonic isn’t terribly difficult to see.
He was ragingly popular – and still is. His games have sold over 10 million copies.
Today, Crash Bandicoot’s co-creator, Jason Rubin, works in Facebook’s Californian offices, leading the social network’s AR and VR efforts, including the Oculus headset.
There, in a tech-chic conference room, he began to describe VR’s blueprint for gaining mass adoption, and infiltrating everyday life in a way that’s – ideally – not at all clunky, bloated, or (and this is crucial) scary.
“I have been in the technology business for close to 30 years now. There’s always a resistance to change,” said Rubin. “Some of that resistance is lack of vision – people only look at what’s in front of them at the moment.”
Rubin was quick to rattle-off a series of examples of luddite resistance that was ultimately overcome, like the aggressive pushback to Apple’s Newton PDA.
The slightly clunky, rudimentary state of VR is not a symptom, but rather a milestone, according to Rubin.
“When I look at VR, I don’t worry about the resolution, I don’t worry about the bulkiness, I don’t worry about the field of view or how clunky the controllers are. The question is: What opportunities does that technology eventually open up? That’s where it really gets interesting.”
The technology has already opened up an arsenal of clever opportunities.
At one hospital in Stanford, Oculus assisted in the development of an educational virtual reality experience tailored for cardiologists. Paediatric cardiologists use the app to explain complex defects to both young students and to patients and their families.
“The heart is a complicated three-dimensional organ, and it’s really hard to describe what’s going on inside of it — especially when something is going wrong,” said David M. Axelrod, MD, clinical assistant professor of pediatric cardiology at Stanford University School of Medicine, in a blog post.
Using their hands to navigate, users can peer into the inner workings of the heart, showing valve defects, or a hole in a septum.
At the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, a different type of training takes place in virtual reality: trauma scenarios. It’s here that VR’s immersion comes to the fore, as medical students and staff are thrown into a high-risk situation that demands split-second decisions while navigating stressful stimuli, like paramedics barking symptoms, nurses reading vitals and panic-stricken parents asking what comes next.
Other applications shown-off include a virtual workstation: a replacement for the traditional desk. Here, you can have browser tabs and emails floating around you, Minority Report-style, tailoring your workspace for maximum productivity, and minimal fiddling with chaotic windows.
Rubin said that VR was already showing a steady influence in the property market, too.
“Architects play with renderings all the time – it’s nothing like it looks in real life. It’s the same thing as someone selling a hotel room based on a wide shot,” he said. “You put them in VR and you can’t play that trick.”
Almost two years ago, Chris Farace, a 27-year-old entrepreneur from Australia launched Viara, an app targeted at real estate developers hoping to sell properties off-the-plan. Catering to a market that’s increasingly sheepish and cynical of space-distorting architectural renders, it’s gained traction, fast.
“It helps to eliminate the risk of buying off-the-plan property. Our clients are closing more sales before construction is complete,” said Farace. “They want immersion. They want interaction.”
Another Facebook employee described watching a new-release movie in a virtual cinema that was filled with people from around the world, each represented by a personalized avatar. He also described shushing some of those virtual avatars who were speaking through the movie. (Some things really do carry over into VR, apparently.)
Rubin believes it will be less than 5 years until virtual reality becomes a widely-adopted tool for productivity, usurping the fly-in-fly-out business meeting, and the impersonal, buffer-riddled video conference.
“At some point, being virtually with somebody will be the second-best thing to being with someone,” he said.
Once you’ve played with the Oculus, becoming wholly lost in a pixelated paradigm that helps you forget the room you’re stood in, and people you’re surrounded by, this possibility isn’t hard to fathom. It’s as exciting as it is confronting.
And, as though he felt the cynicism building quietly in the background of the conversation, Rubin added, “We will never replace in-person. I fundamentally believe that.”
“Nobody here is cold-hearted. Nobody doesn’t believe that in-person interaction is the primary way which human beings will want to communicate for all time.”