Why Everyone’s Suddenly Talking About VR And How To Experience It Yourself
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of virtual reality? Maybe it’s a flashback to the ‘90s:
Or perhaps it’s the oh-so-soothing red and black Nintendo Virtual Boy?
Like neon colors, VR was hot in the ‘90s, disappeared for a while, and now it’s back. But unlike neon, VR is here to stay. It’s not easy to figure out what’s going on in the VR world, however, or how to see VR content. I’ve found myself answering the same questions about VR a lot lately (I’m VP of Product Management at a stealth VR startup), and I’m writing this guide to help you understand why VR is cool and how to experience it yourself. Let’s look at those common questions and then how to get started with VR.
Why Should I Care?
This is kind of like going back to the 1800s, hearing about the first motion picture, and asking “why should I care.” The short answer is that VR is a new medium that is already enabling some amazing new experiences that you have to see to believe.
The longer answer is that over the past 20 years, VR technology has evolved to be rather amazing and to enable unique experiences because it provides “presence.” Presence is a fancy way to say “it feels like you’re really there.” You can be sitting on your couch on a cold day but feel like you’re on a tropical island. Or underwater. Or flying. Or in space. Or in a fantasy world. These experiences feel magical.
When you watch a movie or play a game on your TV, there’s an implicit disconnect: you know it’s not real. But in VR, it feels like you’re in the middle of everything. The biggest result is that you immediately go “wow!” Psychologists are going to have a field day studying what presence does to our brains. Already, people who watch narrative VR experiences report feeling more empathetic to the characters they’re watching. The UN started leveraging that to help people understand the Syrian refugee crisis.
Yes, you don’t get the full sensory experience of being there (there’s no smell, not much touch, and no vacuum of space to try screaming into), but it’s still impressive and transportive.
One of the simplest examples is the Netflix VR app. Within it, it looks like you’re in a mountainside cabin watching Netflix on a big-screen TV. I‘ve found I like watching House of Cards more in that cabin than on my laptop in my living room.
The experiences just get better from there. There are immersive movies, where a 360° movie plays around you: you can be on stage with Paul McCartney. You can be inside Breakout with Proton Pulse. You can pilot a space ship while shooting down other ships. Even Google Street View becomes a really cool experience with VR: you can feel like you’re walking through the streets of a foreign city without having to clear customs.
On the other end of the spectrum from the Netflix app, there are complex experiences where you strap yourself into funky devices to further increase presence. These devices include treadmills, impact vests, air guns, and even bird contraptions. We likely won’t have these in our living rooms any time soon, but like the early days of video games, we might see VR arcades appear.
There are already a wide range of uses for VR beyond entertainment including therapy, training, and education. Google’s even started a program to bring VR field trips to schools. The 2011 book Ready Player One has some great and fairly feasible examples of what a VR world might be like, and it’s a fun read.
Content creators are just beginning to understand how to create content for VR, and we can’t even yet imagine the VR experiences that will blow our minds in 5 years.
And yes, the headsets are a bit dorky, but unlike Google Glass, you don’t wear them out and about, so consider them a more fun version of lounging around in your skivvies.
Why is VR Suddenly Big?
The short answer is because over the past couple years, a lot of people started putting a ton of money into it.
Around 2011, a guy named Palmer Luckey realized that graphics and smartphone technology had gotten so good you could use it to make a VR headset that didn’t suck, unlike in the ‘90s. He ran a Kickstarter campaign under the name Oculus in 2012 that was wildly successful, partially because of the support of John Carmack, a legend of the gaming world (ever play Doom or Quake?). Carmack became Oculus’ CTO.
However, the masses didn’t really care until 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion, starting the VR gold rush. Many people believe that Facebook wants to build the Metaverse.
Shortly thereafter, in summer 2014, Google released a $20 cardboard box with a couple lenses that let any Android phone become a simple VR device. And in late summer, Samsung introduced the Gear VR accessory for their Galaxy Note 4 phone. These helped solidify VR as something real.
Things were kicked up to the next level in October 2014 when Google and a few others invested $540 million in a startup called Magic Leap. Magic Leap is building an augmented reality device. Virtual reality blanks out the “real” world, giving you an empty canvas to build a virtual world. Augmented reality overlays a digital world on top of a virtual world. It’s a bit harder to build but has many amazing applications. Imagine a surgeon overlaying imagery from a medical scan onto your body as she does surgery. Or an angry bird suddenly soaring over your head to hit a pig peeking out from behind your monitor. Or a cute robot dancing around.
Rumor has it that when an investor sees the in-person demo, their next question is “how can I sell you my soul.” It’s just that cool. As an aside, Magic Leap picked up their own legend from the gaming world, Graeme Devine, who created The 7th Guest, amongst other titles: this is a big clue they’re doing some awesome things.
Everything has continued to accelerate in both VR & AR, with more companies announcing products and a lot of investment into both spaces. Microsoft announced their AR product, HoloLens, in 2015, and NASA’s already using it in space. Magic Leap even raised another $800+ million in late 2015.
2016 is currently being called the year of immersive entertainment because Oculus, HTC, and Sony will ship their VR headsets, Samsung is giving away Gear VR headsets with every Galaxy S7 order, Microsoft will ship HoloLens developer kits, and Meta will ship their AR headset. (There are other players doing cool things, but these are the big ones thus far.)
Will VR Mess Up My Eyes?
Maybe, but your body will tell you it’s uncomfortable before bad things happen.
Different headsets let you adjust the focus and alignment of the lenses so that the images are comfortable to look at. The biggest issue is one that 3D movies in theaters face, too, vergence-accommodation conflict.
Put simply, a big part of how we perceive depth is by how much our eyes cross (they cross more when you look at something close) and by where they’re focused (the muscles around the eye adjust the eye’s shape to shift focus). With VR headsets, our eyes are always focused a fixed distance away but the different images our left and right eye receives require different amounts of crossing to fuse together. That tricks our brain into perceiving depth.
Some people get headaches, eye fatigue, and nausea when dealing with this type of imagery. If you are sensitive to 3D movies or are a small child, you might not like VR yet. Fortunately most VR experiences are short and our brains are good at adapting, so it likely won’t mess up your eyes long-term. Just don’t perform surgery or operate heavy machinery requiring eye-hand coordination immediately after using a VR headset.
Will I Get Motion Sick?
One big obstacle in VR is if you’re sitting in a chair yet the world appears to move around you, especially if you’re not doing anything to cause the movement, you might feel nauseated. The threshold is different for different people, and it depends how much and how smoothly the virtual world is moving and how long it moves for. Content creators are aware of this problem and usually try to minimize your discomfort.
Many VR experiences are short, and spending half an hour in VR is comfortable for most people. Spending 5 hours in VR might push it.
We’re also starting to see some solutions, such as these headphones that shock your inner ear to make you feel like you really are moving. Fortunately, unlike say riding on an amusement park ride, if you feel sick in VR, just take the headset off.
Will Immersive Entertainment Replace Movies/Video Games?
Immersive entertainment (VR & AR) is an entirely new medium. This question is like asking “will radio replace novels” in the 1800s or “will the talkies replace radio” in the 1920s. Some experiences will be better as books, some as movies, some as immersive entertainment, and so on.
OK, I’m Convinced. How Do I Get Started?
We’ll focus on VR headsets, as they’re more accessible with more content. There are three types of devices: mobile, console, and PC.
Smartphones are good enough now that they can drive entry-level VR experiences. While the graphics and overall experience isn’t as amazing as the other headsets, mobile VR solutions are portable and don’t have a wire tethering you to a computer. There are two main types of mobile experiences, Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR.
In 2014, Google introduced a $20 folding cardboard box + a couple of lenses that let you use an Android phone as a VR viewer. Google Cardboard has expanded since then, including adding iOS support, and “Cardboard” has become the general term for any simple phone-holding VR viewer and mobile app built with Google’s VR technology, even if the viewer’s not made out of cardboard.
In general, Google Cardboard is your best bet to start playing with VR as the headsets are low-cost and easy to find/buy. Many companies have even given out free Cardboard headsets. The New York Times sent headsets to their subscribers. Verizon handed them out as part of a Star Wars promotion. If you live in Sweden, you could even get one with a Happy Meal.
If you don’t want fries with your VR, you can buy a Cardboard headset for as little as $15. Personally I like this small and portable Goggle Tech C1-Glass. The higher-end Cardboard headsets have adjustable optics and will be more comfortable if you wear glasses.
Once you have your Cardboard viewer, head to your favorite App or Play Store and download the Google Cardboard app to start. The official Cardboard app provides a nice intro to VR. As a hint when using the app, look at an icon on the screen and then tap the screen to engage that experience. (In VR, some apps use a gaze + hold to trigger an action and some use gaze + tap.)
The Cardboard app also provides links to some cool other apps to download, and do search the appropriate app store for “cardboard vr” to find other apps to try! Check out the VRSE and Jaunt apps as a next step, as they have some really neat non-interactive 360° video experiences. Then, go explore what’s interesting to you!
Also, if you have a choice, you will find more Cardboard-compatible apps on Android than iOS. YouTube for Android also has a Cardboard button on the 360° videos so that you can watch 360° videos in VR. I took some video of penguins and fur seals in 360 that is really fun to watch in VR!
Google Cardboard is like the gateway drug to VR because as soon as you try it, you’ll be enthralled and want more!
Samsung Gear VR
Oculus and Samsung partnered together early on to create a mobile VR experience, and the Samsung Gear VR headset and Oculus store is the result of this effort. At its core, the Gear VR works in a similar way to Google Cardboard: you put your high-end Samsung smartphone in it and you see VR content. The Gear VR is also nicer than most Cardboard viewers because it has some basic controls on the side (up/down/left/right/back) and a focus adjustment.
What’s extra-special about the Gear VR is the Gear VR/Oculus store. There’s a lot of exclusive content in there, and you can only access it when your Samsung phone is plugged into a Gear VR. (Heck to get the Gear VR store app onto your phone, you have to plug your phone into the Gear VR headset.) The Netflix VR app I mentioned earlier is available for Gear VR but not Cardboard, for example. Babobab Studios’ Invasion animated short is also very cute and exclusively on Gear VR.
It is confusing however, as you can’t use a Cardboard app in a Gear VR viewer or vice-versa. If you have a Samsung phone, it’s absolutely worth buying the Gear VR (if you didn’t get it for free with your phone), but you might end up buying a Cardboard headset, too.
If you have a Sony PlayStation 4, in October, you can buy the Sony PlayStation VR for $399 USD or spend $499 to get the bundle with the PlayStation Camera and their motion wands. You’ll probably want the bundle as it will give you the full experience in every game: the accessories will let the PlayStation track your body’s motion and enable different types of interaction.
PlayStation VR will likely be the second-most popular VR headset, behind the mobile options, because of how many people already own PlayStation 4. It will also provide a much, much better experience than the mobile solutions, both in terms of graphics and headset comfort. And unlike mobile, this headset also supports room-scale experiences.
Wait! New term! “Room-scale experience.” What’s that? Basically, a lot of VR experiences, especially the early ones, are designed to be used sitting down or standing in one spot. You get comfortable, look around, and maybe use a controller to interact with the world. If you walk around (watch out for your coffee table), the VR world doesn’t react. However, some experiences can define a larger “play space” and track you as you move around. For example, you could turn an entire room into your play space and have a lightsaber battle in it.
If you don’t follow that, don’t worry. You’ll understand it when you see it. Suffice it to say, when Sony announced room-scale support, many game developers had this reaction:
The PC-based experiences are the most expensive, but they’re absolutely the highest quality and really, really impressive. If Google Cardboard is the gateway drug to VR, these are Walter White’s Crystal Blue meth. To be clear, they’re not going to give you the holodeck from Star Trek or live up to the full alternate reality expectations other sci-fi authors set for us, but they are still just friggin awesome. The best VR experiences are only possible with these higher-end PCs such as the animated shorts Oculus Story Studio’s creating, like Henry:
and Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine:
First, and it pains me to write this, Mac users are out of luck. The various PC-based VR experiences need high-end graphics cards, and Macs just don’t have them. Unless you want to spend about $2k on a new PC, if you have a Mac (or a non-high-end gaming PC), I’d recommend buying a PS4 and pre-ordering the PlayStation VR headset.
The two major PC-based headsets are the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. Technically, the two headsets are nearly identical. They both provide very similar visual experiences, they both have hand controllers, and they both require similar, high-end PCs.
The key difference is that the Rift is (initially) more aimed at stationary experiences whereas the Vive is focused on room-scale support in up to a 15' x 15' (~5m x 5m) space.
The launch titles will be slightly different as each platform negotiated different content deals, but there’s nothing preventing an experience that’s Oculus-exclusive right now from eventually running on the Vive (or vice-versa).
If you have a high-end PC, you’ll want one of these headsets. If you have some open space in your house and are willing to spend an extra $200, get the Vive for $800. Otherwise, you’ll be quite happy with the Rift.
Above all, have fun with whatever headset you get! Using a Cardboard headset for the first time made me think of the iPhone in 2007: it’s clear the future’s going to be awesome, and I’m looking forward to some great new VR experiences.
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