In 2014, Google saw the potential in virtual reality and made steps to bring it to the masses. They introduced Google Cardboard, essentially a folded piece of cardboard with lenses that allows users to hold their phones close to their eyes to experience VR videos. The hope was that with many more users capable of experiencing VR, this would provide developers with more opportunity to become innovators in the VR industry.
There are now lots of big players in the VR industry providing users with headsets and various other complementary pieces of equipment to bring the VR world closer and closer. As the technology comes down in price, its popularity increases and 13 million headsets were predicted to be given to early adopters at Christmas 2016.
But what is VR? How can developers use VR to produce new experiences? Will this technology change the way we see the world.
Will VR change us?
The Evolution of Virtual Reality
The original stereoscope was invented in 1838 by Charles Wheatstone who used a pair of images and angled mirrors to create a single image that appeared in 3D. As photography was still in early development, Wheatstone used drawings in his experiments.
In 1844, David Brewster made alterations to the stereoscope design, replacing the mirrors with prisms to create a ‘closed box’, hand held stereoscope. The Brewster stereoscope was a device used to view a stereoscopic pair of images (a pair of images placed side by side), the left eye and right eye view of the same image. The viewer could look at the images through a pair of lenses that would appear to fuse the two images one on top of the other creating the illusion of depth.
At the 1851 Great Exhibition, Queen Victoria was impressed by French Photographer Jules Duboscq’s display of the stereoscopes using his daguerreotypes. With the Queen’s seal of approval the device took off and stereographers were quick to capture the new demand with images from around the world.
For almost a century this technology stagnated and was gradually forgotten about, but now the similarities between the stereoscope and modern VR is remarkable. Google Cardboard uses essentially the same technology, to present videos, side by side, left eye and right eye view and then blur the two images to present the 3D illusion.
But a vital difference is that with VR, you can look around your new environment. You are still looking at 2 images overlapped, but only a small section of the overall image is visible at a time. In a way, the image is wrapped around you and you have to turn to be able to see each piece as you would in real life.
The panoramic image was as immersive an experience for Victorians as VR is for us. They could stand in the middle of an image as we can stand in the middle of a video using a VR headset.
The panoramic image was described by Charles Dickens using language we would now associate with VR.
“Some of the best results of actual travel are suggested by such means to those whose lot it is to stay at home. New worlds open out to them, beyond their little worlds, and widen their range of reflection, information, sympathy and interest.”
One of the main aims of VR is achieving a platform that is so persuasive, that we can trick ourselves into believing in the virtual reality we can create. While the stereoscopes were an incredible step in presenting 3D images to the masses, everyone knew that what they were seeing was still just an illusion, however impressive it was. VR aims to remove the knowledge of the illusion.
In a blog post, Welcome to the Virtual Age, Michael Abrash, Chief Scientist at Oculus considers the potential VR has to transform the way we interact and understand our world.
“Every medium, from books to video games, provides limited descriptions, from which we have to reconstruct the full experience in our minds, losing the immersive power of reality in the process. When we see Neo look down from a ledge in the Matrix, we may get some sense of vertigo, but no one would equate it to the actual experience of standing on the edge of a thousand-foot drop.
“Stand on a ledge in a Rift and you’ll instantly understand why VR is fundamentally different. You will in fact feel like you’re on the edge of a thousand-foot drop – and, if you’re like me, you’ll instantly take a reflexive step back. There’s no interpretation or reconstruction involved in VR; the experience is as visceral and direct a the real world.“
“VR opens the door to using the full power of our perceptual capabilities to interact with digital information. It’s a difference of kind rather than degree; VR is a substrate that subsumes all previous communications channels every one of which can be implemented within VR. Taken to its logical conclusion, virtual reality is the ultimate limit to what we are capable of experiencing.”
While Abrash’s expectations on VR may seem high, and we are, as he admits, nowhere near creating such an experience in virtual reality for decades, the projection of this possibility in the future indicates the ambition of the industry.
In his TED talk, Chris Milk of Within makes the bold claim that VR will be the last medium.
“I mean this because it’s the first medium that actually makes the jump from our internalisation of an author’s expression of an experience to our experiencing it first hand.”
He goes on to say:
“In all other mediums, your consciousness interprets the medium, in VR your consciousness is the medium.”
As difficult as these ideas are to comprehend, the VR industry are laying the foundations to allow us to understand experiences without the author’s filter. With their developments we will literally be able to walk in someone else’s shoes using VR.
Well, to the extent that the filmmaker or app designer has allowed at least.
It could be suggested that by removing the filter of the medium, VR encourages us to empathise with what we are seeing. Because we believe that what we are seeing is real in the moment, we are more likely to believe it and empathise with it.
The further people are away from us (both in physical distance and relationship to us) that less we are able to empathise with them and what they are going through. VR has the capability to bring people closer to us as we are made to believe that we are stood with people who are in fact miles away. Instead of reading about a crisis happening on the other side of the world, VR could help us to experience it in real time.
There have been studies into the ways that we change our behaviour when we become someone else within VR: put an adult into a child avatar’s body in VR and they act more childishly, when white people are put in black avatars there’s an immediate drop in their unconscious racism.
Understanding that our empathy can be manipulated in VR is both exciting and dangerous. On the one hand, VR has the potential to understand each other on a completely new level, on the other it is the producer of the narrative in the VR who has the ability to manipulate where your empathy goes.
While many people are talking about VR as if it is impartial, it is important to remember that, as with all virtual mediums, virtual reality has been created by someone. What you see has been designed for you. VR is still telling a story, you are just less aware of the medium.
Storytelling and Gameplay
Every medium that has preceded VR has given us different ways of telling stories. Books, newspapers, radio, the internet: all of these mediums aim to tell us stories but all rely on authors, storytellers, to attempt to convey the meaning. With each telling, some part of the story is lost in translation (think of Chinese whispers) because language can’t possibly convey every part of an experience.
Film went some of the way to filling the gap by showing as well as telling the story as it happens, but still we are watching the action rather than experiencing it. VR builds on film by putting you at the centre of the drama and then allowing you to explore your surroundings naturally. You become part of the action, not just a casual observer.
There have been a few films created in VR to tell stories from around the world. One example is The Displaced by the New York Times, which aimed to bring the crisis in Syria closer to its readers.
“We decided to launch The Times’s virtual-reality efforts with these portraits because we recognize that this new filmmaking technology enables an uncanny feeling of connection with people whose lives are far from our own.”
To see the film, you can download the app to your smartphone and then use a Google Cardboard or similar to watch.
One of the most talked about aspects of the film at its premier was ‘the food drop shot’, as it came to be called. For this section, the potential of VR was explored using sounds to make the viewer become aware of the approaching plane above with the sound of its engine. As you would in real life, this sound prompted the audience to look up to see the plane fly overhead and then drop the sacks of food. As the food is dropped, people started running around the viewer to collect the food. The whole scene was incredibly convincing.
Chris Milk collaborated on a similar project Clouds Over Sidra which followed a 12-year-old girl, guiding you through her temporary home: the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. This video was screened at a UN fundraising event for Syria in Kuwait raising $3.8 billion, $1.2 billion more than the previous year and almost twice what was expected.
VR was an obvious medium for developing gameplay and it was a gaming technology first and foremost. Where film puts us at the centre of the action, gameplay allows us to interact with characters and move through the narrative framework more intuitively.
Combining this with VR throws up some interesting opportunities to act out fictional situations from a first person perspective. One way Oculus have developed their game play experience is by adding Touch, essentially a controller for each hand to bring your own hands into the virtual setting.
In a blog about the development of the game I Expect You To Die, Design Director, Shawn Patton commented that ‘moving to Touch from mouse really increased immersion’ but it did add a few complications. Game players act differently when they appear to be using their hands instead of a controller. This meant that the game developers needed to think differently about the ways players would use their intuition to move through different challenges. Instead of designing for point and click style interaction, they needed to think about how users would reach and grab using their hands.
Here is the trailer for your interest:
Communication and “Post-symbolic Communication”
2014 wasn’t just a year for Google’s move into VR with Cardboard, Mark Zuckerberg also announced Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR. In his post on Facebook, Zuckerberg makes it clear that games are only the start of his vision for VR.
“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.
“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. [sic]”
The communication opportunities VR brings are hugely exciting. While we are already able to video call, there is a significant difference when you appear as an avatar in a virtual reality. As Zuckerberg and his team show, VR allows us, in avatar form, to interact and play together much more naturally with the ability to draw objects that become tangible and use in-app features like cards or chess.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the technology is the user’s ability to answer a call through Facebook Messenger. This brings up a window showing a real feed of the caller, bringing a view of reality into the virtual space. If this is strange to think about, the ability to take a mixed reality selfie including the real caller and the avatars will really blow your mind.
Here is the video demonstration:
Being able to witness a story first hand or interact with a game narrative is already incredibly exciting progress. But what if you had a dream and wanted to express it to someone? What if you could give them the virtual reality version of that dream?
This is what Chris Milk considers as a possibility for the future of VR. Instead of attempting to communicate using language and traditional mediums, we could use VR to give people our experience directly.
‘In other words, VR will be more than just a storytelling platform. It will be a platform for sharing our inner self – our very humanity.’
With the ability to communicate in this way, a kind of selective telepathy if you will, must certainly have implications on the way we interact and empathise with each other. The uses that tech companies are suggesting are already stretching boundaries but what if you could have an idea for a product, create it in VR and then translate that into the real world? What if your job becomes entirely home-based because you can go to board meetings through your headset. Imagine expressing your feelings by sharing a VR file. Imagine using someone’s memories in court to prove a case.
However we see VR developing and whatever uses we decide to put it to, the current climate suggests that technology companies will be exploring all the opportunities, even if those opportunities remain theoretical for now.
Google Cardboard has made VR easily accessible to the mass market and there are plenty of companies including PlayStation and Oculus developing their own VR headsets. With higher competition, prices will inevitably fall and soon we will all be using VR to some degree. As with all technological developments, from the wheel to the internet, the way we behave will change accordingly.
Will it affect who we are? Almost certainly.