If I was born 1000 years ago, I would have probably been a blacksmith which judging by my beard, stature and tattoos peaking out of my sleeves probably doesn’t surprise you at all. I am the kind of person who likes to create things; I am a maker, a tinkerer, and a doer. Today, I am a developer and I create tools, utilities, and even sometimes, worlds. Virtual reality (VR) is one of the biggest new technologies but is isn’t actually all that new. It isn’t until quite recently that advances in the technology made it possible for people to start to forge experiences that people actually found useful.
In the 1950’s an inventor named Morton Heilig developed the Sensorama. This was a ridiculous machine that was the size of an arcade cabinet that tried to give you an immersive experience. With the limited technology available to him I think he did a pretty good job. The machine had some pretty revolutionary features like 3D, wide vision, motions, colour, wind, stereo sound, vibrations, and even aroma which I am fairly confident I don’t want to smell, I can only imagine how weird this experience is. I can’t help but wonder what Morton would think of the technology today, would he think he was on to something and did people think he was a little crazy back in the 50’s?
Before the sensorama technology like stereoscopic photos and viewers attempted to put you inside a photo. Since then the technology has grown and it wasn’t until recently that it became commercially viable and powerful enough to engage people the way it was originally intended.
It wasn’t until the 60’s when we started to see head mounted displays appear. These were clunky and still required very specific hardware and throughout the 80’s and 90’s several advances took place. Who can forget the virtual boy? A strong attempt at virtual reality that didn’t really work out. There wasn’t a whole lot going on in the space though. There was nothing commercially available for regular people to access virtual reality for their home, and the cost of the experimental stuff on the market was huge, which made it difficult for most companies to access it as well.
When you look at the advances in technology that has lead to where we are now with virtual reality you can’t help but make comparisons to how personal computers evolved. The first computers were gigantic, complex machines that took up an entire room, some of which were as large as this stage. Over time the size of these machines shrunk and the cost dropped until the point of being able to own one at home. We are just beginning to see this happen to virtual reality with devices like the Oculus Rift.
Although this device is not actually that big, in comparison neither was the first cell phone. I recently had the opportunity to meet the inventor of the cell phone. The first cell phone was amazing, portable, and small when it first came out. Now it would be considered huge and clunky. Over time the technology shrunk and we essentially carry around what loosely resembles the original tech. This happens with basically every piece of technology and we’re starting to see this with virtual reality already. What used to take huge powerful computers to render crude experiences, we can now own at home. We’re essentially at the home PC or flip phone stage of VR.
Today we are starting to see the beginning of this wave of excitement, technology, and ideas from people using virtual reality in all kinds of new ways. It is important to think about virtual reality as something more than a new toy though. Just like people have been reached through mediums like print, radio, TV, and the web, you can now reach an audience through virtual reality. VR is the next big medium, the next true story telling experience.
As a developer I have the opportunity to work with many people, from all walks of life with all kinds of ideas that they want to try to bring to life. Virtual Reality has changed this from working with people to show them their idea to working with people to put people inside their idea. Early adopters of this medium are already finding new and exciting ways to use it.
I recently had a chance to sit with a group of educators and thought leaders and talk about virtual reality with them. I asked them about some of the ways they think VR can help them do their jobs, how they think the technology can be used and all of them were entirely possible today.
If you could send staff or students into an environment to learn about the safety hazards without actually putting them in danger would you? Imagine being able to send kids to faraway places through inexpensive photography and videography? This is something that is both relatively easy to do and extremely possible with technology right now.
As a brand, you are always trying to find new ways to reach your audience. If you could put your customers inside your brand’s experience what would you show them? Maybe you’re selling home made food that is locally sourced and you want to show off the process to your customers. Send them to the fields you source your product from and let them see where the food comes from and how it is grown.
Here in Manitoba we have a huge agricultural industry. You might not immediately make the connection between agriculture and virtual reality but when you start to explore the technology there is a lot going on here. One of the most amazing experiences I have personally tried is actually a very simple one.
If I told you I could send you into a pig barn in virtual reality would you care? Most people wonder why they would even want to go into a pig barn. Well the reason this was an impressive experience is because this is somewhere you simply can’t go.
The process for entering a pig barn in Manitoba is so complex that you need to actually be showered down before entering, you need to be trained and gain special access. Once you enter a pig barn you’re not allowed inside another one for quite some time. This is surprising to many people because where people’s minds usually go is imagining that they are inside an old fashioned red barn with some pigs walking around and eating. This is very different than what you will see.
Just like any new technology we are only just starting to realize the potential. This new medium is so powerful and we are still just starting to realize that we can train people, show people something, put them inside your eyes. Let the world see from your perspective.
You will soon be visiting people from all over the world, hearing their stories and learning about their lives without needing to travel there. Imagine being able to travel to a northern reserve, a remote community, a village that is so cut off that you would likely never go there. You can learn about the people, their cultures, the world that you might never visit.
An abstract way to think about the world is that virtual reality, although viewed through a display is more like an extension of reality. We are creating experiences for our audience that is building more reality for them. They perceive themselves to be in another place, time, or life but they are still themselves. When you put people inside your story and you show them a world, you are showing them your perspective through your eyes.
There is an experience that has been floating around the internet which shows a man experiencing virtual reality. He is aware that he is standing in a room with a head mounted display on but when the experience starts he is looking around he is experiencing something different than you or I would see if we were standing beside him. As the man is crawling around on the floor he is able to remove a tile and look through, He then tries to look through the hole to see the room below and hits his head on the floor that is actually there.
This is funny to watch but when you think about it, his reality was totally there. He was immersed in the experience so much he forgot about the real world and was interacting with the virtual one. The example here is to show that when somebody is inside virtual reality they can be so immersed that their brain is tricked into thinking that what you are seeing is real.
There are of course things that will break your perception like ghosting through a wall or a table, things you can’t do in real life but if the experience is designed correctly you can put people into an experience so powerful they are actually there.
So if these people are inside the experience, where does their reality really begin and end?
When you think of a blacksmith you think of somebody who forges something from nothing. When you think of developers you think of something similar. We are building new realities and the advances in this technology is profound. In a few years we will look back at the current state of technology and laugh to ourselves as we look at how large the headsets used to be. The technology we see here today is new and revolutionary but it is just the first step towards the amazing things to come. If you could put somebody, anybody inside your story, what would you tell?
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