The tools of modern media are pretty good at portraying human experience — a computer-generated arrow fired on a movie screen can make an audience duck. That’s nothing compared to the next step in manufactured verisimilitude: virtual reality. Next to it, even 3-D movies are just an improvement on cave paintings. Media approximate experiences. VR produces it. A face-covering display takes over a user’s sense of sight, while sensors mimic the body’s subconscious mechanisms responsible for balance. The result is the actual feeling of being someplace when you’re not. VR proponents say that liberating computing from the confines of glass rectangles will change the way people interact with information.
Virtual reality, a training tool for fighter pilots for at least three decades, can now be had at home for the price of a 40-inch TV. Oculus is shipping a $599 consumer version of its Rift headgear, after selling more than 175,000 development kits for the device. The company, which was acquired by Facebook for $2 billion, is teaming up with Microsoft and its Windows 10 operating system. It will face off against Sony’s PlayStation VR, due in October. Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC and game publisher Valve released HTC Vive, costing $799, in April. Samsung’s $99 Gear VR is a set of goggles that uses its Galaxy Note 4 smartphone as a screen. Because the hardware is still in its infancy, there is little content to enjoy. Demos like spaceflight and roller coaster simulators make up for the lack of polish by cranking up the wow factor. They’ve impressed at least one influential early adopter: the porn industry.
The first head-mounted display dates to the 1960s and a Harvard University project ominously nicknamed Sword of Damocles. The 1980s saw virtual reality enter popular consciousness with the 1982 movie “Tron,” which pioneered the use of computer animation and set a visual standard for VR with a distinctively luminescent aesthetic. William Gibson’s 1984 novel “Neuromancer” portrayed a world where billions of people join a “consensual hallucination.” VPL Research, a Palo Alto, California company, became the first to sell virtual reality goggles and gloves. The founder, Jaron Lanier, is credited with coining the term. Nintendo, Sega and the defunct British company Virtuality tried to cash in on the hype in the ’90s, but weak visuals failed to live up to expectations and the technology slipped from sight for more than a decade. Consumer VR was resurrected by the smartphone revolution. Thanks to the race to pack more components into slimmer devices on the cheap, VR headsets are no longer neck-wringing affairs priced for NASA-sized budgets. The current version of Oculus Rift uses the same organic light-emitting diode screens found in Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones and weighs no more than an iPad Air.
Virtual reality is interesting; most people can agree on that. Whether it’s something more important than fancy entertainment is another question. Fans like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg say VR is a new communication platform. He imagines geographically dispersed people watching sports together, attending college and, of course, surfing Facebook. Gloves and other feedback devices will allow users to “touch” virtual objects and directly interact with information in ways that are intuitive to human brains, the argument goes. Detractors dismiss it as an expensive way to suffer motion sickness in the comfort of your living room. They have a point. VR must harness computation of a high-end gaming PC or $400 PlayStation console to deliver an experience that isn’t vomitous. Some experiments showed that women may be especially susceptible to nausea in virtual environments because they take more cues from differences in shading to determine depth, as opposed to relative size of objects. Flawed as it may be, when it works, VR already delivers what its fans call “presence” — a sense of immersion so profound one has to labor at suspending belief.
The Reference Shelf
- The Verge published a nine-part virtual reality overview and historical timeline in 2014.
- This New York Times slideshow traces the evolution of VR headsets through the years.
- The Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz makes an argument for investing in VR.
- Film critic Roger Ebert mused about the potential of VR in cinema.
- Michael Abrash, chief scientist at Oculus, outlines VR’s past and future in a 2014 speech.
- A philosophical take on VR, escaped realities and suspension of disbelief.
First published March 12, 2015
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