Why Virtual Reality Is More Important Than You Think
Virtual reality is best described through the moments—or rather the memories—of the things you experience when you have that headset on.
When I put on the HTC Vive and experienced virtual reality for the first few times:
- I played fetch with a robot dog in a futuristic laboratory.
- I threw a baseball cap into the sun.
- I leapt away from the low groan of a zombie behind me.
- I tried to use my virtual hand to scratch my real nose when it was itchy.
In virtual reality, I became an active participant in an environment completely removed from reality. And that’s what makes VR a wildly different experience from watching a movie or even playing a video game.
Unlike most forms of media, virtual reality blocks out the rest of the world in a way that doesn’t just encourage us to suspend our disbelief, but actually takes our senses for a ride and immerses us wholly in the experience.
From the outside, bystanders will see someone wearing a headset, waving their hands around, wearing a smile or a serious, focused expression on their face.
This is what VR looks like to people on the outside:
But to the person wearing the headset, they’re completely drawn into a whole other world, where they can actually affect and interact with their environment in a way that just isn’t possible in any other medium.
This is what they actually see:
It’s easy to be skeptical about virtual reality if you haven’t tried it—I know I was. After all, attempts at virtual reality go back to the 1960s, all of which just never caught on. But in the case of today’s VR, after trying a few different experiences, it’s clear why Facebook spent $2 billion to acquire the Oculus Rift virtual reality system in 2014.
There are two kinds of people: Those who think VR will change the world. And those who haven’t tried VR.
Words don’t do it justice. The best way to understand virtual reality is to experience it yourself. The second best way is to understand VR is probably to understand what it isn’t.
What Virtual Reality Is Not
Before I tried VR, I had already formed an (inaccurate) opinion about what it’d be like. And after comparing my experience with others, I realize this is a mistake that a lot of people will make.
So before we go into the implications of VR, let’s clear up a few things first.
1. Virtual Reality Isn’t a Fad
VR isn’t “the next step after 3D movies”. It isn’t “like having a small TV strapped to your face” either. And it’s not “just for gamers”.
VR is an emerging breed of technology that will take some time to fully take root—like the automobile or even the personal computer.
This excerpt from Commodore Magazine published in 1987 illustrates the atmosphere of skepticism that tends to accompany new technology—in this case, the personal computer:
We can rely on technology to grow at an exponential rate—how well we adopt that technology, however, depends on many other variables. But unlike the smartwatch and other relatively new devices, there’s more buy-in around VR —from Google’s Cardboard, Valve’s Steam, Facebook’s Oculus, HTC’s Vive, and Sony’s Playstation VR. We can expect adoption to be a lot smoother and faster than it was for other emerging technology.
And that’s a good thing, because virtual reality isn’t an incremental step up in terms of innovation. It’s a huge leap forward.
2. Virtual Reality Is Not the Same As Augmented Reality
You’ve probably experienced augmented reality before, especially if you’ve used Snapchat’s video filters to vomit rainbows or swap faces with a friend.
Augmented reality (AR), as the name suggests, augments reality by applying a layer over your view of the real world. Like a heads-up display (HUD) AR enhances your perception—it doesn’t try to replace it entirely.
Virtual reality, on the other hand, removes you from reality and that’s what affords it a level of immersion we’ve never been able to achieve before.
And while it’s possible to combine the two so that parts of what you see are drawn from the real world and parts of it are virtual, the full immersion you get with “true VR” is what makes it drastically different from anything else you’ve tried.
3. Google’s Cardboard And The HTC VIVE Are Virtual Worlds Apart
There are essentially two very different VR experiences you can try right now.
One is affordable and accessible, consisting largely of 360 degree videos. You might have encountered these on YouTube or Facebook. You slot your smartphone into a Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR or other headset, fire up a compatible VR app and put it on. Your smartphone’s accelerometer enables your point of view to correspond with the movement of your headset.
Considering its incredibly low price, Google’s Cardboard headset isn’t a bad way to get a small taste of VR in its most rudimentary form. But it doesn't quite compare to the experience of true VR.
Riding a rollercoaster in a 360 degree video only scratches the surface of the VR experience.
To experience virtual reality at its best right now, you’ll need a powerful PC and over $799 USD for the HTC Vive’s headset, two motion controllers, and motion sensors. You’ll also need a dedicated room to set it all up in. But this takes the experience to a whole other level by adding environmental interaction, depth, and movement in a 3D space.