Recently, I’ve had a lot of exposure to virtual reality (VR) through various personal and work-related projects. I believe that it’s poised to become more and more mainstream as the technology becomes more accessible, and as more content becomes available. However, VR hardware is not yet as accessible as mobile devices, and it will be a while before VR applications become as popular as mobile apps. I feel that we are on the verge of a mass VR adoption, similar to a period in 2007 right before mass mobile app adoption.
I went to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia last Tuesday night for their Virtual Reality Showcase. (It looks like they’re adding VR to their permanent displays!) Going in, my feeling was that VR was currently applied most easily to 1) Gaming 2) Medicine and 3) Architecture. I have spent enough time with the Vive platform at home to know what beautiful worlds could already be explored in games, and how long it takes to truly appreciate them. At the VR Showcase there would be too many people to really get immersed, so I wanted to find unique and out-of-the-box applications that are being brewed up instead.
The showcase had a nice variety of experiences like stargazing, exploring a train, and navigating other 3D gaming worlds. Most games on display were not full of plot or action, but rather simple but beautiful experiences to be viewed. At this stage of VR as a technology, the biggest “wow factor” is simply how realistic a world can be. A player can simply put on goggles and sit inside a world for long periods of time and be entertained. Contrast that with the concept of mobile gaming, where instant gratification and throwaway experiences have become the primary driving factor of adoption. Candy Crush works because it takes only seconds to start up and play on a mobile phone. The equipment for experiencing VR has an inherent setup time, and thus the experience must be rich and rewarding beyond a simple instance of gratification.
Surprisingly, for most first-time VR players, the most interesting aspects of an experience are often the most mundane. Just being able to turn your head and see different things is the first new experience a beginner will have. Another is the ability to interact with objects through realistic hand gestures. A display by Leap Motion had very realistic renderings of the player’s hand and finger motions, and allowed manipulation of simple geometric objects. Gaming has a long way to go, but any advance in VR gaming is bound to be highly rewarding for players.
The next big application of VR I was looking for was in medicine and science. I feel like VR technology can potentially be much more beneficial and impactful in this field. The uses at the showcase were primarily for training and visualizing medical procedures. Several different applications were used to visualize brain structures, and helped medical practitioners prepare for medical procedures.
There were also several rehab and physical therapy oriented applications, including a company that created both fitness tracking technology and augmented reality accessories. However, most of the displays at the showcase were pre-recorded 360-degree video clips of the tools in action. Although the user can turn their head and see different parts of the video, these were not truly VR experiences. Perhaps the learning curve of using an actual VR medical tool would be too much for a 30 second demo. I think that using VR as a training tool is a great place to start, but there are a ton of uninvented and unvisited possibilities, and the showcase didn’t exhibit any surprising applications.
Unfortunately, there weren’t any architectural applications of VR at the showcase. I had built an architectural experience in the past for the Samsung Gear VR, and I was hoping to get a more immersive one like the Vive’s IKEA experience. While there are companies that provide experiences to view interiors or traverse rendered buildings, I believe the gold standard will be interactive architectural tools. Through the use of VR, designers and architects could revise layouts, change finishes, and reconfigure positions of whole floors. This is something I’d love to get into more.
Aside from gaming, medicine and architecture, I did discover an interesting new field for VR. Because of its immersive and highly engaging nature, VR experiences are great platforms for storytelling. While creating a whole 3D world is difficult, it is relatively easy to create a 360-degree video using a set of cameras arranged in a sphere. This allows storytellers to create an immersive experience where the user can turn their head and choose what part of the story to view. One company, nothingbutnets, created an 8 minute experience that deeply affected some of the viewers at the showcase. While VR was only a small aspect of their larger philanthropic and socially conscious mission, I believe that it could be one of the most impactful.
360-degree video is probably more likely to get mass adoption than fully interactive applications. Compared with designing a game, it’s much easier to film a video and distribute it via something cheap like the Google Cardboard. Such films can easily be turned into experiences that allow people to travel to a remote part of nature, or see an event live, or experience the troubles in a 3rd world country. There are experiences available on the Vive that allow you to explore an Icelandic volcano or a remote glacier. Those nature scenes can really resonate for someone who hasn’t been able to experience it in person. Viewing them in VR made me really want to preserve the real thing for future generations. A VR experience may be a more effective way to get a message across for social projects, and really engage an audience that is jaded from TV commercials and magazine ads.
Finally, there are a few experiences and applications that I hope will come into existence as VR technology advances. The combination of VR and AR could make things much more interesting than either are able to, individually. Mapping a virtual world onto the real one could have many applications. Imagine using the Microsoft Hololens being used in navigation to point to the actual road you need to take at a confusing intersection. Or a virtual dressing room that allows you to try on clothes that fit your real body type. In medicine, live 3D visualization of a surgery along with tools with haptic feedback could make remote surgery, or microsurgery, a much easier process. Finally, for gaming, I think that if an omnidirectional treadmill can be implemented, the combination of that and a wireless headset could cause people to be immersed for hours inside a fantasy land of their choosing.
Right now VR has too many possibilities but also a lot of technological limitations, but I believe that I need to be involved in VR in order to use it to help the world.