Is Virtual Reality the Future, Or Just a Passing Fad?

We went to the Virtual Reality Los Angeles Spring Expo to find out.

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Mar 27 2015, 8:30pm

Photo via Flickr user Pargon

The problem with futurism—that is, trying to predict the future as a hobby—is it's impossible. Trying to predict the future is about as accurate and reliable as, well, trying to predict the future. Look at the 2015 of Back to the Future II, and then look outside at the 2015 of right now. Hoverboards aren't real, the skies aren't full of flying cars, and we don't turn our pockets inside out because of fashion. Instead, we've got a bunch of technologies that feel like natural extensions of the stuff we've been working on for the past 20 or 30 years and a culture that picks and chooses the best elements of decades past, replicating and improving upon them.

Still, there are some things that make us go "Holy shit. We are 100 percent, unequivocally living in the future." You probably felt that when you held your first iPhone, that sense that you were about to unlock an entirely new set of experiences that your ancestors had not. Your parents might have felt something similar the first time they bought a personal computer, and it's likely that their parents felt the same way the first time they watched television.

After spending this weekend at the Virtual Reality Los Angeles Spring Expo, I have a premonition that virtual reality will soon give that same feeling to people. Though VR has been conceived of by humanity and even tested out on consumers in the past (perhaps you recall Nintendo's short-lived Virtual Boy gaming system) it's only now that our technological capabilities have caught up to our design and performance goals. We don't have flying toilets or Jaws 17 or whatever, but we do have the ability to strap a smartphone to our face and enter an entirely new dimension.

The reddit thread that started it all. Photo by the author.

Of course, it's entirely possible that I'm simply sipping the VR Kool-Aid. The guys who run VRLA are, if you hadn't guessed, really into the idea of the imagined future. During VRLA's opening remarks, a slideshow frequently showed images taken from The Matrix and Inception, two dystopian science fiction movies that seemed to predicate the current generation of VR technology. Johnnie Ross, one of VRLA's cofounders, asked the question of what visionaries like Elon Musk, the Wright Brothers, and Martin Luther King, Jr. (in that order) would have done with Virtual Reality technology.

In the midst of quasi-insane platitudes, Ross's talk had some valid points. Mainly, that VR technology is not that outlandish when you think of it as a pair of headphones, but for your eyes, and that VR is much, much more accessible than people probably realize. Still, the age of virtual reality is not quite upon us. Talking to me after the conference, Cosmo Scharf, another co-founder of VRLA said, "We're far from the peak of where this technology is going. It's pretty exhilarating to witness all this interest and excitement around things that are, essentially, pre-products."

Scharf is a pretty fascinating guy. At 20, the USC Junior has found himself at the center of VR's Los Angeles hub. He seemed exhausted, and throughout the course of our 20-minute conversation, repeatedly apologized for losing his train of thought. He told me, "Somehow, I had this insight that VR was gonna be massive and it turns out that I was right."

When I asked Scharf what he thinks is the ultimate conclusion of Virtual Reality, he said, "The ultimate place we're all hurtling towards is the Matrix—we'll all be living in a simulated computer environment. I don't know when that will happen or what it will look like, but it will happen in our lifetimes." Just to fuck with him, I asked, "If you die in the Matrix, do you die in real life?" To my surprise, he said, "Great question!" and proceeded to talk about the potential of simulating pain in VR.

As of now, most VR headsets function simply as viewers for your smartphone. Others, such as the Oculus Rift, plug into a computer and beam in content from there. Having VR headsets fit in with pre-existing technology has allowed developers to keep the headsets relatively inexpensive. There was a booth at VRLA giving away free Google Cardboard headsets, which are, well, Google's VR headsets made out of cardboard. They're dirt cheap to make, and currently the Google Play and iTunes stores offer several apps specifically tailored to Cardboard technology. Samsung, meanwhile, is releasing its Gear VR headset in select Best Buy locations today, March 27. Its price will be $199, though as of now its compatibility is limited to Samsung Galaxy smartphones.

A consumer tries out Oculus. Photo by the author.

There are VR options for nearly every consumer level. There's Hyper's Homido headset, which is compatible with both Android and Apple phones and runs about $80 with an online rebate. The Oculus Rift, which is still in its development stage but is available to consumers, will run you about $350. Said Scharf to me in an email, "Apple is most certainly working on VR devices but no one knows about them. My guess is they're waiting until they get it right and will blow everything out of the water."

Walking the VRLA floor, it became clear that there's something of a Wild West feeling to the current range of VR technology. Right now, a lot of VR content is specifically tailored to elicit the specific feeling of being in virtual reality, which means a lot less weight is being placed on the content itself as opposed to the experience of consuming it. This is perhaps best illustrated by a booth whose exhibit was a pair of sensors that strapped to your feet, allowing you to "run" in virtual reality. When I asked him what the practical application of the sensors might be, he speculated that someone might be able to strap one to his penis and have sex in VR. A different booth showcased a new camera that captured video meant to be experienced in Virtual Reality. Others offered game demos (mostly non-playable), real-time motion capture tech, and one beamed in a holographic DJ set. Another booth, bizarrely, simply offered VRLA attendees the opportunity to play a quick game of Counter Strike. I guess some old, nerdy habits die hard.

One booth offered an EDM concert in VR. I found myself disinterested in the actual performance and instead playing the voyeur, paying attention to the virtual crowd around me—people were checking their phones, talking to each other, and cheering, with no idea I was watching them. If I were at an actual concert, these people would have been a non-entity at worst and annoying at best. But at the virtual concert, the music took a backseat to the spectacle around me.

Image courtesy of Reload Studios

Other booths attempted to offer a more holistic experience. Reload Studios is a new gaming company formed specifically with the intention of creating games for the virtual space. They were debuting World War Toons, a VR first-person shooter featuring cartoonish World War II soldiers battling in realistic European maps. I spoke with Reload co-founder James Chung, who helped develop the popular shooter Call of Duty. Chung is so excited about the possibilities of VR, he told me, because "this is the first time in human history where the audience is no longer removed from the stage—you're actually in the middle of the action, which changes the dynamics of the narrative form."

When I sat down to play a rough, five-minute demo of World War Toons that ran through the Microsoft Xbox, I immediately understood exactly what he was talking about. In its rough form, World War Toons is disconcertingly immersive. Though I've played first-person shooters since elementary school, there was always a sense of separation when a rocket was flying directly into my digital face: there was space between me and the screen, which helped serve as a reminder that what I was experiencing wasn't real. In the world of WWT, that wasn't the case. Even in the middle of a cartoon while still using an Xbox controller, I couldn't shake the feeling of fully inhabiting the game's world.

One of the problems with VR as it stands is that our spatial awareness hasn't quite caught up to technology. As a recent study (reported on by Motherboard) has shown, our bodies have both internal and external monitors that keep track of our position in space. When the two get out of sync, some truly weird shit happens. When I turned my head left, I looked left in the world of the game. When I ran or pressed the "jump" button, my perspective got the impression that my body was moving, even as I remained seated in my chair. This bag of decidedly mixed signals confused my body and brain, and following the demo's conclusion my friend and I both felt nauseated and dizzy. We were forced to sit down, drink some water, and wait for the feelings to subside.

Image courtesy of Kevin Mack

Kevin Mack, meanwhile, wants to use VR's potential to create dissociative sensations for the purpose of art. Virtual Reality, he thinks, "is better suited as a medium for art than it is as a medium for narrative storytelling and for games." And movies are something Mack knows a thing or two about—when I asked him what he did before his stint in VR, he casually said, "I helped kind of pioneer computer graphics for visual effects." Mack won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects in 1999 for his work on Vincent Ward's What Dreams May Come, starring Robin Williams, and his father was an animator for Disney. He recently quit a big Hollywood job (he wouldn't say which project specifically) to concentrate on VR.

His program, called Shape Space, is nearly the polar opposite of the frenetic World War Toons. Shape Space is an exercise in what he calls "forced mindfulness," and takes the user on a 90-second long journey in which abstract, three-dimensional sculptures pass through the viewer as if they were clouds. It's a wholly zen sensation, offering the user the opportunity to drift through a surreal space, disembodied. When I asked Mack at what point he wanted to make VR the focus of his work, he told me, "1973. I used to dream of this stuff. It's finally coming true. It was so much fun when computer graphics was new to visual effects and we were pioneering it and inventing the whole process and that's kind of settled. So this is the new thing, and I want to help pioneer this."

Follow Drew Millard on Twitter.

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