Looking Through Rose-Colored Headsets

By Lily Wang

In 1985, a humble group of programmers from Silicon Valley began exploring the concept of virtual reality from a tiny cottage in Palo Alto. This group would later be recognized as VPL Research, a small company founded by pioneer Jaron Lanier, the man credited for coining the buzzword “VR.” Although VPL initially earned a substantial investment and stirred significant hype for VR in the early 80s, it later filed for bankruptcy when the hardware was unable to live up to heavy expectations for the industry. Nevertheless, VPL propelled the idea of VR into the public conversation and catalyzed a competitive race to incorporate these immersive technologies into a part of daily life for billions of people all over the world.

It’s now 2016, the so-called “Year of VR,” and Lanier’s efforts are quickly being realized. The landscape has finally shifted in favor of virtual reality, with huge tech giants such as Google, Microsoft, and Samsung developing and launching their own VR technology. Today, VR is recognized as a three-dimensional, computer generated environment that stimulates the human senses, emulating an experience that allows a user to feel present in a certain virtual environment. According to the IDC, the market for VR is estimated to be worth $150 billion within the next four years, opening up the enormous possibility for VR to change reality as we know it.

Oculus, the current VR poster child, initiated a breakthrough in the industry after launching the Rift in March 2014. Before that, Facebook had acquired the startup from entrepreneur Paul Luckey for $2 billion after its demo was powerful enough to convince Mark Zuckerberg of VR’s versatility. Thanks to advancements in technology, the Rift generates an experience as close to reality as possible.  The ingredients to achieve this feat include evolutions in screen resolution, positional tracking and motion sensors, haptic technologies (which make phones and video game controllers vibrate), 3-D graphics, and audio.

So far, the Rift has captured the most attention from the gaming community, with hundreds of online gamers demoing Rift headsets and VR video games for the public to enjoy.  For many gaming fanatics, the growth of virtual reality is considered natural evolution of the gaming industry.  Through the Rift, gamers will be able to completely immerse themselves into the distinct universes of role playing games, better known as RPG’s, and engage in combat, battles, or missions in more realistic ways than ever before.

Horror games have proven especially great for VR, as they employ unique features of the headsets to heighten flat screen horror gaming into a theatrical horror experience. The Brookhaven Experiment utilizes Rift’s 360o view to scare its players when they least expect it.  The objective of the game is simple: gun down as many monsters as you can before one eats you. However, because players can turn anywhere they want with the VR headset, developers can hide monsters in places where they aren’t looking and shock them with a gory bite to the face. Similarly, Dreadhalls, a stealth horror game about escaping from a dungeon, uses head tracking technology to build up tension through surround sound. Strange whispers now seem eerily close and sudden footsteps echo through a hallway, sending uncontrollable shivers down a player’s spine. These effects illustrate how virtual reality video games are a new frontier in fear, generating terrifying experiences that prey upon the immersive intimacy that the headsets create for players.    

But virtual reality has the potential to touch so much more than just the gaming industry. In 2007, Derek Belch, a kicker for the Stanford football team, approached his professor Jeremy Bailenson, the head of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, with an idea. Belch believed that there was a more effective way to improve his skills than just analyzing plays on the field from traditional sideline and end zone views. He proposed utilizing virtual reality to accelerate a player’s preparation for future games.  Once VR technology hit the ground running, Belch and Bailenson developed a method to film practices in 360-degree video, allowing players to relive their practices simply by putting on a headset. Instead of looking at footage from an inconvenient bird’s-eye view, the photorealism provided by VR allowed players to scrutinize their own movements and footwork from the perspective of the coach. In 2014, Belch tested out VR training on the Stanford football team, witnessing substantial success that culminated in an overwhelming win over Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl. A year later, he founded StriVR, a company dedicated to promoting VR as an instrument for learning and development.

The success of StriVR highlights VR’s potential to redesign the education sector in the future. Instead of immediately placing inexperienced drivers behind the wheel and onto the busy streets, virtual reality simulations can teach them the basics of the road without any danger. NASA engineers can learn how to repair satellites in a realistic environment through VR, and medical students can witness operations through surgery simulations, a teaching method that has actually been used in the UK. Even the military has adopted VR for training purposes, allowing soldiers to experience and react to given combat situations without the risk of serious injury or death. But like everything else, VR has its limits. Although in many situations, VR provides the only secure environment in which to develop basic or even advanced skills, full mastery in any field requires real rather than modeled experiences. VR can only go so far with providing realism in its simulations; eventually, students will have to perform surgery on living patients, soldiers will have to engage with actual enemy troops, and novice drivers will have to move on to real roads.

Even VR gaming presents serious drawbacks. The aforementioned Oculus Rift carries a hefty price tag of $600, not including the cost it takes for the PC to run the device. In the past, attempts of popularizing VR failed due to outrageous retail prices, and even with promising advancements in current technology, pricing still imposes an ominous barrier. With such a burdening cost, VR may have trouble establishing itself in the market right away, as it would tailor to a very niche category of consumers. At the extreme, VR could also lead to desensitization and interfere with an individual’s ability to perceive and react to real experiences. For VR to have a significant impact in the market as a new industry, it will have to prove itself capable of overcoming these barriers of entry. Although its potential is promising, VR’s heavy dependence on the willingness of select consumers to spend a lot of money and the development of future technologies prevents the industry from taking off right away. These few factors will determine whether or not Jamie Lanier’s humble vision will become a reality or remain a fantasy.