When I go to a conference and see bobble-headed enthusiasts wearing some kind of virtual reality goggles, spinning around in chairs, craning their necks to see some distant corner of a virtual world - I'm both completely disinterested and oddly intrigued.
I am not an early adopter; I may even be a Luddite. I look at new technology with a skeptical eye and wait for it to become an inevitable, inescapable part of my life through work requirements or social pressure (e.g. Twitter, Instagram, the smartphone).
What does fascinate me (both as a consumer and as a tech reporter) is how this technology will influence our lives, adding new and exciting elements to interaction and productivity. So when I go to a conference and see bobble-headed enthusiasts wearing some kind of VR goggles, spinning around in chairs, craning their necks to see some distant corner of a virtual world – I’m both completely disinterested and oddly intrigued.
I’ve tried out Sony’s prototype glasses, given Samsung/Oculus VR a spin, and ogled at Microsoft HoloLens. The technology is most definitely amazing – 360 degree views, vivid colors, natural movements, and pretty good picture quality – and the potential to augment reality with Sony and Google offerings could be life changing. But Oculus, like most of the major systems, is unwieldy, chunky, and just goofy looking. I’m prone to motion sickness and felt dizzy after trying a Gear VR demo where I visited a live stream of Facebook’s campus. In the end, I’m still curious why I would need this.
I know I’m not the target audience for this stuff -- gadget geeks like my brother get more excited while I’ll just wait for the tech to trickle down. However, at its F8 developer conference, held in San Francisco March 25-26, Facebook and Oculus engineers tried to convince me otherwise.
In short order, everyone will care about virtual reality because our visual systems are lacking. In a keynote speech, Oculus VR’s Chief Scientist Mike Abrash, pointed out many deficits in the ways the human eye and brain function separately and communicate. We can only see a fraction of the full 360 degrees around us, with large blind spots, and no blue receptors in our eyes.
“Rich as it seems to be, our visual data is actually astonishingly sparse. Our perceptual systems have to make assumptions,” he said. “We experience nothing more than what our mind infers, depending on what you see. Virtual reality, done right, truly is reality depending on what the observer sees.”
This is some Matrix-level stuff, and I never even cared to watch that movie. Still, I was fascinated by a series of visual tricks Abrash demonstrated – most of which had to do with perception of color, size, shape, and direction. Our brains and eyes are constantly correcting and adjusting to create our world – and these adjustments are often incorrect. If the science is right, and it usually is, we each have a set of tragic flaws that can’t be corrected by prescription lenses.
Using virtual reality to fix problems that actually need solving, such as vision degradation, really appeals to my practical side. Will I invest in a several hundred dollars’ worth of expensive equipment so I can hang out in Facebook’s courtyard or play a cool video game? Probably not. Would I be slightly more inclined to pay for something that augments my current reality if it supplements my vision and corrects for errors? Maybe.
Acceptance of virtual reality, even for skeptics like me, is inevitable according to Abrash. Compared to virtual reality attempts in previous decades, today’s technology is far enough along to be compelling to consumers, and broad industry participation will push invention forward. While better audio, visuals, haptics, and tracking that would allow you to see yourself in the virtual world (right now, you can just look around) are still in the works, there are some seriously compelling demos.
The next-generation Crescent Bay Oculus demo showed me seven scenes that both delighted and scared the hell out of me. My favorite put me high on a plank above a Gotham-eque cityscape, with planes buzzing overhead. As I leaned down, I could see what seemed like 100 feet below me. Two scenes featured a dinosaur that roared in my face with a ferocity that brought me back to Jurassic Park. The piece de resistance was a fight scene developed by Epic games that literally made me jump – the flying bullets, explosions, cityscape, and aliens were so real.
Crescent Bay, the next generation of Oculus, is lighter with integrated audio and 360 degree head tracking. Oculus did not provide specs on display, but Abrash said pixels were “strobed at 90 Hz.” Whatever the image quality, the visuals were vivid and tactile.
This all makes me think that maybe, just maybe, these folks at Facebook, Microsoft, Samsung, and the like may be onto something. In a year or two when my brother has purchased a pair of virtual reality glasses, I’ll actually be stoked to try them on.