2015 came and went without so much as a hoverboard prototype, but something nearly as futuristic has just arrived: Virtual Reality. The concept of VR has been around for decades, from the invention of the ViewMaster in the 30’s. The last five years, however, has accelerated technology to a point where immersive virtual reality is finally possible.
Immersion is perhaps the most important concept in VR. Put simply, immersion is the point at which you forget that you are looking at a simulation and believe that what you are seeing is real. This is what’s special about the newest generation of VR – you’re no longer looking at a screen, but instead transported to a virtual environment.
The two main devices in this first generation of immersive VR are the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. The offering from these two companies are very similar – both head mounted displays have a similar size, resolution, and field of view. The crucial difference between the two is that the Vive supports room-scale VR, where the Rift is limited to seated VR experiences*. Room-scale VR, the ability to physically walk around and interact with the virtual environment, is key to a number of exciting uses for virtual reality such as education and simulation.
* Oculus have claimed that their hardware will also be able to implement room-scale VR in the future, however this is only a proof-of-concept at this stage.
It’s not just for games
Both Oculus and HTC are marketing their VR devices as gaming accessories, for a couple key reasons:
Consequently, the majority of VR experiences are currently video games. But to fully understand the potential of virtual reality, it’s important to think of VR as a new digital medium.
In my opinion, the leap from the computer screen to virtual reality is just as large as that from still photography to film. Most importantly, this means that the same rules don’t apply: what might look like the most asinine and boring VR experience on video may actually be completely captivating. This also means that new considerations and techniques need to be used when creating immersive VR experiences.
New medium, new applications
By treating VR as a new medium, we can begin to explore the plethora of uses for VR experiences outside of the video game industry.
Sundance is pioneering the use of VR as a storytelling medium. The 2016 Sundance Film Festival featured over 30 VR experiences as part of the New Frontier program, plus several panels discussing the challenges of translating film genres to VR.
One of the pinnacles of VR storytelling is The Rose and I from Penrose Studios. A creative reimagination of “The Little Prince”, this experience shows the power of VR as an engaging, emotional, human medium for storytelling.
Simulating real-world environments and scenarios is an extremely useful application of VR. A good example of this is the IKEA VR application, which allows the user to browse, examine, and modify the design of an IKEA kitchen. This is far more powerful than an online or paper catalogue as it gives the customer a real sense of the dimensions and finish of the items on offer.
Simulation can also be used to create scenarios which would be prohibitive to create in the real world. An example of this could be a VR fire evacuation simulation which would allow the training of fire wardens under realistic conditions which can’t be achieved in a standard fire drill.
VR has huge potential in the education sector. The ability to create interesting and immersive experiences can be harnessed to deliver education material in way that engages students and facilitates “learning through play”.
One such experience is Universe Sandbox, a physics-accurate universe simulation. The user can browse through different scenarios such as the Earth-Moon system and the solar system, as well as create their own scenarios (for example, an Earth-Mars collision). This kind of simulation has real power to foster interest in otherwise inaccessible topics, and encourages learning through play.
The tip of the iceberg
Virtual reality is truly in it’s infancy. The rules haven’t been written, and the experiments are still being performed. We’re staring at the tip of the iceberg, wondering what’s underneath. The current VR experiences are predominantly made by independent game developers and filmmakers, and through them we are discovering the potential of this new medium.
This first generation of VR is by no means perfect – but it does enable those independent creators and entrepreneurs to begin to develop virtual reality as a force in it’s own right. By joining the conversation early, you will be positioned to shape the evolution of virtual reality and the path which it follows.
Now is the time to begin considering your applications for VR – whether it be in prototyping, training, storytelling, or something completely new. By getting in early you ensure that the impact of your efforts are multiplied by this rapidly growing technology.