A shared dream

Bringing our whole selves to virtual reality

The Forest — Brennan Gleason @ Domain7 | See the animated version of the artwork at domain7.com/vr

I could tell she was cheating. The tail was directly on the donkey’s butt, and no blindfolded five-year-old could achieve that. As the other kids at the party waited their turn behind my daughter, I looked at the scarf that was clearly not helping obscure her vision.

“I have an idea,” I said. “Hold on.” I ran out of the room, and came back holding my Domain7-branded Google Cardboard package. I quickly opened Google StreetView, found an environment of an underwater ocean scene, strapped it on my daughter’s head, and we resumed the game.

Now true disorientation was achieved. She couldn’t possibly see the donkey in front of her when she was immersed in the underwater world of a coral reef. Sure enough, kid after kid went inside the goggles, performing suitably terribly at Pin-the-Tail on the Donkey.

And then the questions started. Fellow five-year-old’s at my daughter’s party clamouring to understand what they’d just seen. “What was that?” “Can I try that again?”

And from the parents, too, curious what this strange headset was that had their kids so entranced. “Did you make that?” (No, definitely not!) “Is that expensive?” (You can order one for about $20 bucks, and use free apps from your phone with it.)

I turned on my TV and switched my phone to AirPlay mode, so the screen was mirrored for all to see. Now the whole room could experience what the kids were seeing inside the headset. I grabbed a piece of construction paper and wrote a list of names so we could take proper turns. One by one, the kindergarteners would make requests of places to visit, and they’d be instantly transported.

“Where should I go, mommy?” asked my daughter’s friend Isabelle.

“Let’s go see my hometown in Germany!” her mom said.

They gave me the address and I punched it in. The headset went on.

I could see the cobblestone roads and the old houses in the stereoscopic image on the the TV. Inside the headset, almost as if she was there, Isabelle turned her whole body around and around and around. She looked down at her feet. Up to the sky. Her mom took her by the shoulders, orienting her towards a grassy area.

“Over there honey,” she said. “That’s where grandpa is buried, where we visited last year.”

Her mom glanced up at me at shook her head in disbelief that this was happening.

One after another, kid-and-parent gave requests for places to visit. We found a beach. A childhood home in Portland, Oregon. We climbed a mountain.

This is a magic box.

My daughter has no words for it. We’ll play sometime in the evenings, when it’s not a school night.

“Can I try that thing again where you’re there but you’re not there?” she’ll ask.

“Where the picture is right in front of you but it’s not?”

She’ll crawl and walk and step around the house with the mask on, convinced her own motion propels the image forward. We’ve visited dinosaur museums and hockey stadiums. We’ve been hit by a train, we’ve been inside a womb. I’ve had to hold her hand tight as sound and video completely surround her (“Stay close, daddy!”) with such a realistic sensation her tiny mind and body believes it’s actually happening.

Yet this magic box is just a prototype, really. Only as powerful as my phone is. Not really possessing much in the way of controlling it with your voice, like future platforms will. Not letting you interact socially with others, as future ones will. Not showing your own avatar in real-time, like others platforms…already do.

My colleague Stephanie introduced me to the leaders at MetaVRse a few weeks ago. Talking with Alan and Dan, who have helped their clients launch many virtual reality experiences already, I had some questions.

“Let me run an idea past you,” I said, thinking I was being bold or adventurous, or at worst, silly and preposterous — going out on a limb to share my pet VR idea.

I explained how, in our work at Domain7, collaborative workshops are a crucial cornerstone of our work with our partners. Being in the room, sketching on post-it’s and whiteboards and easel charts, creating meaning together in real-time. Yet sometimes, travel is a barrier: it’s not always possible (or at least not always easy) to get everybody in the same room, especially if we’re on different continents.

“What if virtual reality could create a lower-cost, higher-quality way to collaborate in-person?” I asked “To bring people together in a shared environment for a temporary design sprint? We could design an environment with lots of light, lots of sketching supplies, record the room’s written results so you can replay it later, too!”

I was interrupted partway through.

“It’s called High Fidelity,” said Alex. “The same guy who created Second Life, Phillip Rosedale, is working in a real-time, multi-person collaborative VR world to do exactly that.”

“Wait,” I said, a little taken aback. “If these things are already being developed, why aren’t they more widely known, more broadly adopted?” I asked. I explained my own journey getting inside the power of VR, and starting to apply my own imagination to spaces where virtual reality could acquire practical use.

“That’s where many of us are at,” suggested Alan. “We’re still about two years out from mass adoption. Right now, there are only about 250 decent case studies of companies using VR for any practical use. Most of them are in marketing: visual experiences, largely entertainment focused. This year, the best we can do in VR is all about sharing with people what’s going to be possible.”

“The technology that’s available today is about to change. Apple is likely entering the VR space in 2017, judging by their acquisitions. The two big mixed reality ones that aren’t yet widely available yet — HoloLens from Microsoft, and Magic Leap — once people get their hands on those…”

Words trailed off as the implication landed. This isn’t just far-off, one-day, eventually, maybe, possibly: this is today. We don’t need to use words like “imagine,” or “what-if.” We don’t need the vague hypotheses I was offering Alan. This is now. This is here. This is inevitable. The question is not “how will we make neat business apps for VR,” but rather, how will humanity adapt to acquiring a new, shared way of experiencing reality?

Not virtual reality. Reality, period. This is part of us. Part of the world. That’s what I was missing before.

I used to see people with The Mask on and think, pfft, how silly. Yet another example of forgoing the real world for another digital escape, another computer-aided distraction. Eyes open but seeing nothing real, yet this one looks even sillier than you fiddling with your smartphone, yet now even more of your physical body is being ignored, neglected.

Until I went inside it myself.

People often say about virtual reality that you “have to experience it” to understand it. I assumed that people who were telling me “you have to experience it” were just bad storytellers. It’s not the case. The closest parallel I can think of is the technology of the simple human dream. Go ahead, tell me a story about the last dream you had. The school was your school but actually your office, you say? And then the floor caved in and you felt like you were falling, and you woke up in your bed?

When we hear those stories, we don’t say, “Pfft, that sounds unlikely.” No, as fellow dreamers, we know the full-body belief that comes from dreaming, the deep psychic marks a dream leaves on you, the truths and terrors they tell, and how personal yet universal they are.

With virtual reality, we are creating technology for a shared dream.

And not just for entertainment — VR contained to the cinema or the home theatre. VR is for everything that real life contains and includes, from our work days (zapping our commutes) to our thought life (extending our ability to explore and think) to our social connections (changing how we discuss and hang out).

Here’s where our imagination needs to work a little harder to connect with what’s possible. This technology of virtual reality creates almost actual-ness. There-ness and here-ness. “You’re there but you’re not there”-ness, to quote my daughter. These will be dreams we have, people we interact with, trips we come back from that need debriefing, experiences we have that will need to be explained, somehow. A whole new language of storytelling needs to evolve to help us cope with the there-but-not-there-ness.

Do our prophecies and myths contain clues to this new world? This is off the grid, isn’t it? As humans, we are stepping into developing a parallel, immersive, shared collective reality that can influence transportation, conversation, understanding and more — and no legends, religions or fables have rules to govern these new lands. There are “no maps for these territories,” as sci-fi author William Gibson has declared.

Or are there? Could it be that every Narnia was preparing us for dealing with the pain and possibility of incorporating a future and parallel world into our day-to-day? What Peter and Lucy experience inside that wardrobe — does that not shape their character?

No alternate reality is truly disconnected from the present one.

We’re not just putting our face inside these boxes, we’re letting a new experience access our hearts and minds. We are putting our customers and families and daughters and sons inside these experiences—our whole selves. So it matters that we also bring our whole selves to the design and creation of these experiences. Ethics matter today, and will matter tomorrow. Empathy is important today, it will be crucial tomorrow. Our guiding vision of creating any evolving technology that touches the mind and the eyes and the body like this must be closely linked with an exploration of humanity’s holistic heart.