My Virtual Reality Mea Culpa

A still from THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903, Public Domain)

In a previous post on Medium I expressed a lot of skepticism about Virtual Reality and its chances of successfully breaking through into the mainstream, beyond a geek and gamer niche.
 
 I was wrong. 
 
I recently had the chance to try a wide variety of VR experiences at the Visual Effects Society’s Bay Area Summit at Pixar Animation Studios. Five minutes wearing an Oculus Rift headset didn’t just change my mind about VR, it tricked my senses and my brain in ways I had never even imagined possible.

After a short clip that explains how VR works and how to get your bearings and cope with any discomfort or nausea brought on by vertigo or “simulation sickness”, I was experiencing several short sampler experiences. The first couple were simple animations with geometric patterns and fairly crudely outlined animated animals in a woodland setting. The woodland experience was impressive in that you could virtually move around the animation. The next experience had a robot arm moving around you and doing a variety of things. I found myself ducking and dodging as the robot swung its arm in my direction. 
 
The next couple of experiences were leaps and bounds beyond what had preceded them. The first of them completely freaked me out. A door opens and you are on the edge of the roof of a skyscraper in a steampunk / Art Deco hybrid of 1930s New York and an Asian city, with a Zeppelin or blimp overhead. I’m scared of heights, although I’ve never been weirded out by an IMAX screening about mountain climbing or flying, but this VR experience absolutely convinced me I was right on the edge. I found myself reflexively staggering backwards from the edge, reaching for a railing that was in my field of vision but which wasn’t there in reality. The feeling of grasping at air only deepened my panic. I had to close my eyes for a couple of seconds to calm myself. I almost pulled the headset’s connections out of the computer in my haste to get away from the roof’s edge. Thankfully I started to calm down and just stood with my back to the virtual door, taking in the virtual skyline and admiring the graceful turns of the Zeppelin until the clip ended. 
 
The next segment was just as impressive and immersive. I found myself in a museum corridor, and in the distance, a rumble and a roar can be heard. The rumbling grows louder. Then suddenly a life size Tyrannosaurus Rex rounds the corner in front of you, charges towards you and pauses before roaring at you, mere inches from your face. Dino saliva hurtles past you as she howls and the sound coming from her mouth seems to go through you and surround you… I knew it wasn’t real, but I couldn’t help feeling like the paleontologists played by Sam Neill and Laura Dern in Jurassic Park when they see their first live dinosaur — the Brachiosaur. My senses told me it was real, and as my brain tried to protest that it wasn’t, couldn’t be, it just gave up and thought, “It’s a dinosaur!” The VR dinosaur then runs over your head, her belly inches from your face as you look up and her body and tail move over you. I was left staring at it as it ran away.

Just so you know, I’m not some gamer geek obsessing over the latest immersive game — I am the world’s most inept gamer. I have the hand-eye coordination of a half-blind, three toed sloth with osteoarthritis. I’ve played PlayStation and X-Box games, but I’ve never really felt drawn into a computer game like I was immersed in those last two VR experiences. It was like going to the movies and finding myself in the screen and in the movie. Then my time was up and I was back, blinking and slightly disconcerted, in the real world.

As a storyteller my first thoughts were what an incredible storytelling device it is. It can immerse us deeply in worlds and experiences in ways we’ve only imagined until now. However, in the weeks since, as I have looked at the technology and projects that have been and are being developed, I have come to realize that it seems to lend itself best to certain types of experiences. It’s best used for those we now go to see or “experience” on the “big screen” in movie theaters — the incredible animated worlds the likes of Pixar create, IMAX documentaries about exploring outer space, the ocean depths or impenetrable jungles and the SFX-driven out of this world sci-fi blockbusters. VR is the perfect way to immerse ourselves in worlds we can’t easily experience otherwise. VR is an intensely visual medium — it works really well when it’s something we are looking at, but it doesn’t seem to work as well when we want to interact or follow along with something on screen. So far, from what I have seen and read, the overwhelming amount of VR content include experiences that have more in common with thrill rides than the conventional stories we see on movie screens or the more active plots of many of the biggest game franchises (Assassin’s Creed, Legend of Zelda, Super Mario). 
 
VR seems to create characters that talk at us rather than to us, if they talk at all. To me this seems likely to be the biggest challenge facing VR in the next few years — how to use a mix of design, programming and AI to create characters who can realistically interact with us within a virtual environment. 
 
Going forward, the creators of VR experiences face a number of physical and technical limitations: the technology is still being development, there is no definitive industry standard or portability of games / experiences between the different headsets or a common set of basic requirements for computers to provide minimum and optimum playback. What works for one headset and game combination can cause problems when played back on another headset, if it can be played on it at all.

There are also some obvious limitations on the realistic-ness of the virtual experiences. Within a few minutes of looking around using VR, you find yourself looking down, at yourself, or lack thereof, and thinking, “Where are my legs? Where are my hands?” This leads to distraction and confusion. It also suggests that until developers come up with a way to solve it, users of VR will have to get used to being disembodied heads in many of the experiences. It may also reduce the ability for some of the most obvious applications of VR — first-person shooter games and action-adventure games — to make an impact until solutions are found. One possible solution could be users setting up a “profile” on the machine with gender, age, build and skin tone settings that could be used to interchangeably simulate their hands, legs and bodies.

These are the first steps on a very long road. Right now we’re looking at the VR equivalents of the Lumiere Brothers moving picture experiments with trains coming towards viewers or the gunman shooting at the audience in The Great Train Robbery. It’s a tremendously exciting time to be looking at a new art form and waiting to see what it’s Jazz Singer, Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane or Gone with the Wind will look like.

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