Semi-recently I had the opportunity to try out the gamut of virtual reality technology out there. After I tweeted as much I was asked by a few friends to drop my then upcoming blog post and and give my impressions on VR instead. Needless to say, don't tell me what to do.
Before this technicolour adventure, my relationship with VR is probably best described as your relationship with your childhood idol. Maybe you read about them in magazines (you know, if you're old enough that magazines were still a thing in your youth), and/or feigning familiarity on Twitter (if you're young enough that Twitter factored into your childhood in any meaningful way), possibly collecting as much trivia on them as possible. They say you should never meet your heroes, so first, it's a good thing all of mine were dead in my lifetime, and second I wasn't completely sure how I was going to feel about VR in person. But curiosity, and a philosophy degree had me eager to at least give it a whirl, should an opportunity present itself. After a work time Slack rant basically identical to my previous post on Unity vs Unreal the lead of the VR team invited me down for a try.
I was able to test a Google Cardboard, a Samsung Gear VR, and an HTC Vive. For the agenda of this post I'll give brief impressions of using the first two, then take a break from pesky concrete examples and try to outline my impressions on the Vive and things I found really intriguing about it. On that note, before getting into our guided tour, a quick description of me should one day a human I haven't met fall into that weird place on the internet and show up here -- I am a tall, socially awkward woman with very gangly limbs and motor control akin to a drunk person driving a forklift. I am painfully aware of these facts and extremely self conscious as a result, the amount of alcohol required to get me to dance in public is greater than the amount of alcohol required to kill me outright. I have also seen enough gifs, and dystopian paintings to know how dorky people generally look in VR headsets. Please keep this in mind in the next sections.
The Cardboard and the Gear both track the position of your head and can't be used for walking around (unless you're into walking into walls while getting no VR related rewards at all in which case shine on you crazy diamond). Google's Cardboard is literally a cardboard housing for your phone, you can develop Android applications that use it, or even use C# and Unity. My initial thought was to compare the Cardboard to those view-finder toys you may have used as a child to view 3D slides. In fact, the impression was so powerful I Googled 'view-finder' discovered that is was actually called a 'View-Master' and that Google was partnering with them to build a Cardboard implementation, so it's nice to know my children's toys instincts live on. The Cardboard was seriously let down by the fact that my eyes could in no way properly focus, and can be best described as a 'what it would be like to be a person who needed glasses but didn't happen to have them today' simulator. So we tripped a bit out of the gate.
Thankfully, the Gear had a focus knob built into it, so I wasn't experiencing the whole thing in a literal blur. The Gear markets itself as affordable VR (should you already have a Samsung phone, if not its price jumps a wee bit). My most vivid memory using the Gear was the Mystery Science Theatre 3K experience where you can watch a movie and savagely take it down with friends all over the world. This might sound strange, but the weirdest part about using the Gear was how focused I was on where my hands were. There doesn't seem to be a cool and casual thing to do with them while a screen is attached to your face, and as a result they drifted towards my temples, presumably looking like I was doing a fairly mediocre Professor X impression. I think Daniel who was guiding me through this adventure asked me a dozen times if the straps were tight enough, and they were I just couldn't find a good place to store my gangly limbs for the duration of the film.
Which leaves the Vive, the coolest piece of tech you will touch in 2016 unless something really crazy happens in the next 8 months. The Vive was the only room sized, walking around type of VR. And thankfully my hands were occupied by controllers. Instead of an itemized list of the applications I tried I'm going to talk about general impressions instead or we'll be here all day.
Tilt Brush was probably the most memorable experience of the whole afternoon, but it's a feeling that's probably hardest to describe in words without selling it short. Most concisely, Tilt Brush is an application for drawing in 3D, you can walk around your piece, lean in to examine your brush strokes of varying styles and generally have all the fun of a gymnast ribbon without any of the impermanence. My art talents are clumsy at best, more or less limited to wishful thinking, but imagining what an actual artist could do is pretty exciting. My friend Julie has done some light painting in the past, and adding an extra dimension to that would be pretty incredible.
Perhaps easier, but by no means trivial to put into words is how physicality works in VR. For example, it much easier than I expected to look down and accept that I have no body. I had two differing experiences on this, Job Simulator in which I had more of a presence, and the Portal demo where I was more ethereal.
Job Simulator had me feeling a bit uncoordinated, similar to Surgeon Simulator your appendages do have weight and there is a one to one mapping between your movements and your hands in VR. In some ways, it was difficult to get past the gamer mentality of 'press button complete action' and instead use my weighted hand to press buttons and close a copier. Especially with no feedback. Thus, I frequently felt like a person recovering from dental surgery in oven mitts and had some disorientation.
On the flip side the Portal demo fell a bit more into the press button paradigm but ended up feeling a bit more compelling for it. Anyone with even a passing interest in VR (and some people with none) have probably seen the videos or gifs of people having very dramatic reactions to virtual stimuli, from balancing on a board to rescue a fictional cat, or viscerally reacting to encroaching monsters even though the people involved presumably know that the danger is not real. I remember very vividly in the Portal demo a robot approaching me and after backing away from it for a few seconds remembering that it wasn't actually a physical thing and trying to convince myself to just let it walk through me, and even with that very conscious impression it was extremely hard to do. I really did feel like I occupied space in the world.
Now, I don't want to have wasted the thousands of dollars I put into that philosophy degree, so I would like to point out that Putnam's brain in a vat thought experiment seems a bit more interesting now. VR acting on only sound and vision is extremely compelling, and even without the apparatus interfacing directly with a brain. A person dumped into a potential future VR simulation early in life (don't try this at home on any babies you know that don't belong to you) provided food input and output would probably not find it difficult to accept simulation as reality. The lump of meat in your skull has instincts and just because it isn't being input genuine, physical data doesn't mean it isn't going to react on the perceptions it does have.
In general, I've just spent over a thousand words trying to describe to you something I genuinely believe is indescribable without trying it for yourself. I don't know if you can really understand how real it all feels until you actually try it. Currently consumer VR is pretty stuck in the games application, but I'm pretty sure it isn't going to stop there. My job is already looking at e-commerce applications, but honestly the possibilities are limitless -- recreate structures destroyed in antiquity, or go to other planets without all the pesky travel time and lack of oxygen. And that's not even to start on stuff that is only possible in VR, be someone or something new, go somewhere that doesn't exist yet, and never will exist. We'll be building empathy and empires all our own.