What the heck can VR bring to the living room?

Netflix Living Room on Gear VR

Virtual Reality has made some astounding leaps in the past couple years — not just in technology, but in consumer adoption. At long last, VR headsets just work, and there are multiple solid solutions offering different products for the price of a nice flatscreen TV. But to get them into users’ hands, VR peddlers have advertised their most obvious use case: augmenting entertainment experiences. But what else can VR bring to living rooms?

First, some taxonomy distinctions. The holistic headset systems like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive hook up to a performance PC, tethering them in place for better performance, while the middle-of-the-road PlayStation VR runs off a PS4 console. The others, including the Samsung Gear VR and Google’s Cardboard and upcoming Daydream setups, run off select Android phones; ergo, they aren’t physically bound to a specific area, but their immersive abilities are limited by the horsepower of their mobile devices.

Regardless of which type, all VR headsets offer primarily solo experiences. True, the PSVR and PC-bound systems can broadcast the user’s view on a separate screen for folks on the couch to ride-along, but whosoever dons the headset has control. So what can VR offer the sedentary living room?

Entertainment will obviously be any VR system’s first use-case. Gaming aside, there are plenty of circumstances where locking yourself into the isolation of a VR headset comes in handy — say, when watching media late at night when you don’t want sound or your bright TV to bother roommates or partners. Or maybe you just want to watch while others use the living room for something else. Netflix released an app for Gear VR back in September that puts users in a virtual home theater with picture and audio that might even top your current setup (details for wonks here). HBO will probably follow, as it was included in the services lined up for Google Daydream when that was announced in June.

Outside traditional entertainment, there are many smaller companies looking to design educational content for VR. While the company behind the MMO Roblox is touting DevEx as a platform for developers to produce games for its young 8–18 year-old demographic, it’s also promoting the educational experiences devs can make, like Bird Simulator. Or the myriad simulation walkthroughs of historical places or dissections of human and mechanical systems in Eon Reality’s educational app catalogue.

But VR is not augmented reality, and some of Eon’s apps, like this AR diesel engine manual, are dedicated tutorials for use on-site where a virtual model can be seen side-by-side with the real thing. Sticking in your living room, immersed in VR, means you’ll be limited to whatever environment your headset produces. Even mobile VR headsets, like Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s Cardboard and Daydream, don’t have external inputs or sensors to warn players that they’re about to stumble into walls or a street.

Some options have features that offer hope for compromises down the line. The HTC Vive comes with a forward-pointing camera, which Google developers integrated with its fantastic Tilt Brush app back in September, giving players a special brush to open a “portal” to peer out into the real world. Of course, HTC Vive users are still heavily tethered to their living rooms, so you won’t be able to take your heavy-duty headset out into the real world for a serious AR experience — but looping real-world objects in with the objects you’re manipulating in VR is promising. Perhaps the camera could scan in photos to manipulate in a VR editing room, or a scanned puzzle could be assembled with a friend in a VR lobby. Or items lying around could be added to games mid-play.

But at the end of the day, VR as we know it is a contained experience — wholly generated worlds before your eyes, yet requiring your body to stay locked in a finite corrall lest you crash unawares into real-world things. Logistically, users must be sedentary, hence their suitability for the living room. That won’t always be the case, as new headsets liberate users from tethering to powerful computers or game systems and static external sensors. But greater innovation will come when developers find ways to integrate the immersive inner world projected into user eyeballs and the external environment our bodies live in. Until then, we’re stuck in the living room. For now.

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