Saturday, June 11, 2016

What’s the point of virtual reality?

If the psychologists are correct that the mind eventually accepts as real what is actually just virtual or imagined,* one natural endpoint is to use the technology to indoctrinate children to look up to me. In more ways than just physically.
And there will be no more back talk, short ones.

From techcrunch, May 26:
VR needs content if it’s to be more than a flash in the early adopter pan. But it’s pretty clear that in the short term at least it’s not going to have a whole lot of compelling content.

And understandably so. It’s a new medium, after all, and figuring out how to create exciting ‘experiences’, as the VR pushers put it, is going to take time. Not least because perfecting the hardware remains a sizable distraction.

VR is not cinema, although we’re being told people will watch movies in VR. VR is not your common-or-garden games console, although gaming is being primed as a major use-case. VR is not a computer either, although we’re being told it’s going to give birth to a whole new computing paradigm. The reality of VR may well end up being far more mundane than any of those early stab-in-the-dark guesses as to what its primary point is, if point there be.

I’m a VR sceptic, sure, but my ten cents says its best hope to win friends and influence people is as an educational add-on that leverages its primary trick — that much lauded ‘immersive perspective’ — to help humans better understand spaces and places in context.

Understanding scale is notoriously tricky on paper. Humans are, after all, visual creatures. Telling someone a stat, say how many thousands of people are living in a refugee camp, is one thing. But showing the scale of that camp where raw numbers can be seen in context is far more powerful. Because perspective is powerful. It leads to understanding — and moments of revelation tend to stick in the mind.

That said, the jury is still out on whether doing this ‘showing of the telling’ in VR will be any more powerful than the existing potency achieved by other flatscreen-delivered media, be it video, TV or cinema. 3D cinema has not upended the rules, for example, or overwhelmed existing 2D content. But VR pushers will of course claim their type of reality-mimicking immersion is different. Is somehow special.

Perhaps. But perhaps not. Every video viewer performs their own form of immersion, suspending their disbelief and/or engaging their imagination in order to properly sink into a piece of content. And have the content sink into them. Claims that 2D media is passive have always struck me as false. Sure, some visual content is brainless. But try watching any David Lynch movie passively. Far more is required of the viewer than just sitting and letting colored light wash over your eyeballs.
But again, if you step away from thinking about VR as the next wave of entertainment media and zoom in to think about using this tech to achieve a narrower, primarily educational aim, then immersive perspective on a space by being in a space starts to sound a lot more compelling.

Virtual tour technologies that stitch together photos to create walk through panoramas exist already of course. But they’re generally fiddly to use and don’t really do much more than show another less-than-real perspective on the scene you’re trying to understand. Looking at 3D models can get you closer. But then you risk sacrificing a sense of scale. VR’s promise is to transform you into the tiny orange stickman of Google Maps fame and drag you right inside the map. If only for the moment needed to grasp perspective and grab the sought for understanding.

Turning to narrative structure, 2D media typically accepts a linear form. You press start on the video and watch from start to finish. There are exceptions — interactive documentaries where you can choose different segments or episodes to watch in different sequences, say. But the basic structure is an arrow.

By contrast VR’s structure is far less clear. It’s naturally far more freeform given the point is to mimic life. One piece of VR ‘content’ can involve standing on the spot and just looking at stuff going on around you. Another approach might put you on defacto rails to prevent nausea, intentionally limiting movements to try to make a gaming experience enjoyable. Another might let you wander freely through some old ruins taking in scenery. Or move around in a futuristic office doing whatever you fancy, be it opening drawers, throwing stuff or using an object copier. There’s nothing very narratively satisfying about almost all of these pieces of content — hence that recurring VR word ‘experience’.

If you stop trying to think of VR as the next generation of entertainment media and rather look at it as an informational/educational tool with specific niche applications — whether it’s in real estate enabling a buyer to remotely cut down their shortlist of homes to go and view, or for doctors to visualize an operation ahead of going into the operating theatre — then its formlessness falls away as irrelevant. It can take whatever momentary form is needed to fulfill the task at hand. Nor will people be dystopically and dorkishly sitting with VR headsets on all day — no more than anyone other than a tradesperson spends all day holding a tape measure or playing with a set of screwdrivers....MORE
HT: Quartz
*I was babbling about this a couple years ago in reference to Pearson rolling out educational VR programming. You really, really want to be the person supplying the content.
"Facebook, Oculus, And Businesses' Thirst For Virtual Reality"