My interest in virtual reality was virtually nil – until last month. When I thought of it, I pictured low-budget sci-fi movies with bad special effects. I thought of those pixellated posters, popular in the mid-1990s, the ones where you would stare at the wall and a three-dimensional vision of an underwater city would slowly emerge from a cluster of purple dots.
I thought of it as something that turned on adolescent gamers who sat at home in their underpants with the curtains closed and who dreamed of a day when they could fully inhabit the body of the bank robber guy with the stubble and the biceps in Grand Theft Auto . I thought of 3D glasses in 1950s movie theatres and the 360-degree cinema screens your parents took you to when you went on holiday to France and it was raining. The whole idea of virtual reality made me want to stifle an actual reality yawn. In short: I was clueless.
But that was before I visited the Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory at Stanford University in Silicon Valley and had a sleek black headset containing an eight-camera infra-red tracking system strapped to my skull. That was before I stood on a floor made from aeroplane steel and fitted with “shakers” that simulated surface motion and before I experienced a spatialised sound system and before I had sensors attached to my wrists that responded to my movements. That was before I’d flown like a superhero.
I’m greeted like an old relic because I have never tried the Oculus Rift headset
“Put your arms out to take off,” the laboratory manager Shawnee Baughman says, as if this is all perfectly normal. I do as instructed. There is a whoosh of air, a shudder beneath my feet and then I’m swooping through the sky, arms outstretched into the vast blue beyond as I fly through a computer animated New York City. Looking down, I can make out the traffic lights and empty streets far below. I can feel the slicing movement of the air each time I turn. I fly into a skyscraper, just to see what happens. I feel a surge of nausea as I crash into the wall and then the bricks shatter on impact. It is incredibly convincing.
When I move my arms together, I go faster. When I point them towards the ground, I fly downwards. As I land, my knees vibrate with the impact. I remove the virtual reality headset, my palms sweaty with exhilaration. I am an immediate convert. There’s nothing like pretending you’re Wonder Woman to counteract your own ignorant scepticism.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Screenshot from the virtual city that Elizabeth Day flew around in. Photograph: Stanford VR Lab
“The special thing about VR,” says Baughman as she takes the headset from me, “is that the scene responds to the way you are moving. It’s fully immersive.”
So immersive that I feel slightly car sick. Apparently that happens a lot: in real life, your eyes move when you’re looking at an object and the lens in each eye adjusts to bring whatever is in front of you into focus. With a flat, lit-up screen, that’s not possible. The solution lies in eyeball tracking. The Stanford VR headset has tracking LEDs that manage 200 frames a second, which is pretty sophisticated. “My boss has a joke,” Baughman says, “that the five most important things about virtual reality are tracking, tracking, tracking, tracking and tracking.”
She chuckles. It’s not the best joke I’ve ever heard. Perhaps it works better in a world of virtual humour.
One Dark Night: Emblematic Group’s reconstruction of the killing of Travyon Martin Virtual reality is at a pivotal moment. For years, it has been talked about in the tech community as a sort of holy grail. As far back as 1939, the author Stanley G Weinbaum was writing about a goggle-based virtual reality system with holographic recordings of fictional experiences. By 1968, the American computer scientist Ivan Sutherland had designed a virtual reality head-mounted system that was so cumbersome it had to be suspended from the ceiling and was called, terrifyingly, the Sword of Damocles.
Throughout the 1990s, the concept of VR seemed to be moving ever closer (a 1992 edition of Computer Gaming World confidently predicted affordable virtual reality within two years) but limited computing power ensured these theories remained purely hypothetical. Then everyone got their attention diverted by a more promising prospect: the internet. Today, substantial advances in computer science mean that virtual reality visionaries finally have the technological power to implement their ideas. Major companies including Sony, Oculus and HTC are already developing headsets for use in the home that will be on sale in the first quarter of 2016. By the end of next year, it is estimated there could be 12.2 million VR headsets in our houses, retailing from $99 to $500 (not including the compatible computing systems).
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Wearing an Oculus Rift headset to play a video game in the Pocket Queries booth at the this year’s Tokyo Game show. Photograph: Getty Images
Google has developed a flat-pack version made out of cardboard, called Cardboard , which is exactly the kind of ingenious, innovatory thought leadership you expect from cutting-edge tech developers.
Cardboard consists of two magnifying lenses that can be inserted into a rectangular holder into which slots your smartphone. You can then download content from a virtual reality app and view it through the DIY headset. I’ve tried it and, despite looking like a Blue Peter experiment with double-sided sticky-tape, it works fairly well.
Virtual reality enthusiasts say it’s the next big thing: an idea as capable of transforming our lives as the mobile phone. “In just a few years, VR has gone from being this science fiction dream to an awesome reality,” said Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg last month. “And now we all here have a chance to change the way we play, communicate and collaborate.”
Zuckerberg, who knows a thing or two about predicting trends, bought one of America’s leading virtual reality technology companies for $2.3bn last year . Oculus VR is the idea of a 23-year-old wunderkind called Palmer Luckey and its acquisition by Facebook opens up a plethora of opportunity for the social network – from collaborative 3D computer games to enabling a friend who couldn’t attend a wedding to experience the service in 360-degree video.
A selection of games and experiences soon to be available on the Samsung Gear VR headset Eugene Chung, the former head of film and media at Oculus who recently left to start up his own “augmented and virtual reality studio” , calls it a watershed moment. He cites the myth surrounding one of the Lumière brothers’ first cinema films in 1896 of a train arriving at a station. The astonished audience, unaccustomed to watching a moving picture, were said to have run to the back of the room in terror at the oncoming train.
“You have this thing that is so different from anything you’ve experienced before, that you run away from it,” says Chung. “The next few months and years, you’re going to see that with virtual reality. The first time I tried it, it blew my mind.”
Oculus has big ambitions. When I go along to its second annual developer conference , held in a plush hotel in Hollywood, it is full of men in polo necks speaking into microphone headsets about “ Twitch streams ” and “recommended specs” to a packed auditorium. Zuckerberg himself makes an appearance to announce that VR will be “the next great tech platform that’s going to define the way we connect in the future”.
Everyone claps. The ratio of women to men wearing T-shirts bearing humorous slogans (“Eminence Geek”, “Binary, it’s as easy as 01, 10, 11” etc) is probably running at about 1:6. I am greeted like some kind of relic from a past age because I’ve never tried the Oculus Rift headset. The Rift is about as good as it gets: a state-of-the-art headset with displays and optics designed specifically for VR.
“You’ve never put one of these on before?” asks a bearded type who is overseeing the demo room. I shake my head. “Wow,” he says, looking at me as if I am Marty McFly. He slips on the headset, which feels lighter than the one in Stanford and more snugly fitted. He hands me an Xbox control panel. “You’re familiar with the Xbox controls, right?”
I have played an Xbox precisely once in my life. It did not go well.
“Yes,” I lie.
“OK, then.” He starts up the demo. A curved screen in front of me offers me a choice of games to play. A floating cursor moves with my gaze. I opt for something called Chronos because it sounds a bit Greek and a bit like a bowel disease.
Chronos Reveal Trailer. And: it’s extraordinary. I’m immediately pitched into some sort of Mayan temple. My avatar is a warrior with a sword. When I jiggle the controls to make him move, there is the sound of footsteps and also – hard to explain, this – the feel of feet shifting. I can turn my head and look over my shoulder and see the continuation of the vista: rocks and temple ruins and jungle plants. I could quite happily hang out here, just taking everything in.
But I’m intrigued. So I make my warrior walk into an open doorway and am confronted by a massive monster that looms over me so realistically that I physically cower in my chair. I last about two seconds before the monster squashes me and it’s game over.
“You picked it up very quickly,” says the bearded guy after I remove the headset. I think he’s just being nice. Again, I have that same vague sensation of motion sickness.
Although the gaming market will be the testing ground, there are countless other applications that are being explored.
Afterwards, I talk to Ted Price, the president and CEO of Insomniac Games which he founded in 1994. Price has penetrating blue eyes which become almost hypnotic the more he talks about VR. He makes several attempts to express what virtual reality is like to someone who hasn’t experienced it and then admits defeat.
“It’s like talking about how something tastes,” he says. “You can’t understand it unless you try it.” What excites him most is that gaming in virtual reality “could have a much broader appeal just because of the sense of place you get, which in some sense is as important as the game itself. It’s where the lines blur a little between what is a game and what is an immersive experience … Your world surrounds you and that’s a huge difference.”
His company is developing a VR game which will put the player in the skin of an Antarctic explorer. The more the journey goes on, the more surreal it becomes so that the game becomes a test of mental strength as much as anything else.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Virtual Reality ‘Future Fashion’ Event at Westfield. Photograph: Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for Westfield
“We want players to question whether what they see is real,” says Price. “So we’re playing with a player’s 3D spatial experience. Is this glacier real or is it a figment of my imagination? So it becomes a psychological thriller. We have the ability to tell a story in a way we have not told them before.”
In fact, much of the most interesting work in virtual reality springs from this same desire to find new ways of storytelling. Although the gaming market will be the testing ground, there are countless other applications that are also being explored.
The film director Gil Kenan, whose previous work includes the Poltergeist remake and City of Ember , is working on a virtual reality science-fiction movie about an unwanted passenger on an outer space journey.
What this means is that a cinemagoer in a VR headset will be in charge of their own experience. So, instead of always having to follow the main narrative action, they can choose to step into a different space and witness a scene between two minor characters that would otherwise have ended up on the cutting-room floor.
The film would still be the same fixed length for all viewers, Kenan explains, but: “If you’re doing the job right, there will be layers of storytelling that can’t be consumed in a single viewing. For example, there could be a foreshadowing of future events or events on the margins that could be just as thrilling or tense.”
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It’s like a multi-layered Russian novel, I say. “Yes!” he says delightedly. “I’m trying to be the Tolstoy of the big screen! I’m thinking of it in terms of five-minute stories within a bigger narrative and scope.”
What will this mean for film critics? How will they review a single movie that incorporates so many user experiences?
“They will have to talk about the totality rather than one cursory viewing.” So it’ll be more work?
“More work,” Kenan admits. “That’s why I’m making it shorter. Also, I don’t think we’ve reached enough understanding of this medium to understand what a logical length of time is for these experiences because most of it, at the moment, is two to five minutes because it’s the demo phase.”
There are other interesting VR entertainment developments in the pipeline. VRLive , for instance, is a broadcasting company that records concerts in 360-degree virtual reality. It has already done a version for a U2 gig which puts the user slap-bang in the front row, close enough to see Bono’s Cuban heels.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Palmer Luckey, creator of the Oculus Rift. Photograph: Getty Images
“I know the live experience is huge,” says co-founder Dann Saxton. “But we’re talking about releasing virtual ticketing if the house is full and people can no longer buy tickets to go to the event itself.”
In the future, virtual reality could be used for school trips in the classroom. Pupils could more fully experience what it would be like to live in a bygone era, for example, or could travel to far-flung lands without ever leaving their desks. At Oculus, I learn of one company that is seeking to use VR for geriatric care by giving elderly people who live on their own virtual reality consultations with their doctor.
There is pioneering work being done at Stanford’s virtual human interaction laboratory in this field too. The lab runs psychological experiments under the guidance of Professor Jeremy Bailenson to explore the scope of human empathy.
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In one video, you put on the headset and find yourself confronted by a long mirror running the length of one wall. When I look at my reflection, an elderly man looks back at me. When I move my arm, the avatar moves his. When I turn, I’m being shouted at in discriminatory terms by an angry person. This is intended to show people who might not have experienced discrimination on grounds of age or race what it feels like to be in another person’s skin and it is surprisingly effective.
Another video shows people becoming aged versions of themselves. When confronted by a greying image of their own face, this will – so the reasoning goes – make them more likely to save for retirement. Merrill Lynch liked the research so much it used the technology as the basis for designing its own online app known as FaceRetirement , which allows anyone with a laptop camera to create and interact with their future self.
There’s another demo that teaches users how to survive in the event of an earthquake and Bailenson has also developed technology to place children with chronic pain in virtual simulations that divert their brains from unpleasant physical therapy and treatment. The children use avatars to perform distracting exercises such as popping balloons. “VR experience changes the way you think of yourself and others and changes your behaviour,” Bailenson said in an interview earlier this year. “And when it’s done well, it’s a proxy for natural experience, and we know experiences physically change us.”
Taken to its logical conclusion, this has some worrying implications.
“I can’t look you in the eye and claim that it only works for the good stuff,” said Bailenson. “Am I terrified of the world where anyone can create really horrible experiences? Yes, it does worry me. I worry what happens when a violent video game feels like murder. And when pornography feels like sex . How does that change the way humans interact, function as a society?”
It’s a question I put to almost everyone I meet throughout the course of researching this article and almost everyone says the same thing: on-screen violence already exists and it’s up to the individual to monitor their own choices.
I can’t look you in the eye and claim it only works for the good stuff. Yes, it worries me.
Professor Jeremy Bailensen
“As a gamer and a parent, the first thing I do is I check up on what I’m going to play on a device and whether it’s right for me,” says Ted Price. “It’s up to the gamer to decide what they can handle, as it is with movies or books.”
Well, up to a point. But arguably the people most vulnerable to virtual reality violence are also those with the least capacity to know what’s good for them (or to care). And there is no doubt that feeling is acutely heightened in a virtual reality world.
Nonny de la Peña, Co-Founder of Emblematic games explains the concept behind Project Syria The most memorable and moving experience I had while trying out various VR demos was one made by Emblematic , an organisation specialising in immersive documentary and non-fiction. It has been at the forefront of developing news-related content that seeks to put the user in the centre of the action. One of its films places participants in the midst of a rocket attack in Syria and later in a refugee camp. Another is a multi-viewpoint reconstruction of the night 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot dead by a neighbourhood watch volunteer in Florida in 2012, using real-life recordings from emergency 911 calls.
“One of the things we asked ourselves is how do you break through the torpor of constant media images to trigger a more emotive response,” says Emblematic’s co-founder Jamie Pallot. “The defining quality of virtual reality is a sense of presence. It tricks your mind into thinking you’re somewhere else and that produces a very strong empathetic response.”
He hands me a headset, apologising for the poor quality of some of the images as he does so. It’s in the early phases, he explains. I watch a short animated film called Kiya which tells the real-life story of two sisters’ attempts to try to rescue their sibling from her abusive ex-boyfriend. Again, actual 911 recordings are used.
Immediately, I am in the midst of the story. I watch as the two sisters enter the mobile home where they try to reason with a man holding a gun. I listen as their calls to the police become increasingly panicked. I can sense their fear in a very real way. As the sisters move back outside, I follow them. A shot sounds from indoors and, although I don’t see it, I already know that Kiya has been killed. The last image is from inside Kiya’s home: a fridge covered with photos of her young daughter.
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As a journalist, I have often found myself in extreme or sad situations. I have interviewed a terminally ill man, a convicted murderer, the grieving mother of a schoolboy who committed suicide. Each of these stories has moved me deeply because of their visceral reality and truth. But I hadn’t expected a computer animation to provoke this reaction. When I remove the headset, there are tears in my eyes. Jamie asks me something and I have to take a few breaths. I am surprised because the emotion is so instinctive. I hadn’t noticed I was on the verge of crying until I returned from the virtual world to the real one.
“That was quite something,” I say.
Jamie nods. “There are grown men who’ve started watching this and who’ve had to stop halfway through because they can’t take it,” he replies.
It’s not yet clear where this technology will go or what its full potential might be or whether it will take off in the spectacular way promised by its most vehement supporters. But it’s a tantalising prospect nevertheless.
So I was wrong. Virtual reality isn’t boring. I’m actually pretty excited about it, even if it makes me car sick.