Three Important Things to Know About Virtual Reality

I've been spending plenty of my spare time as of late exploring the technology known as virtual reality (VR). While it has been a very enlightening experience so far, I had quickly come to realize that I started my jaunt into the virtual world without answering one fundamental question: What exactly is VR? If you are uncertain about VR too, don't worry. Here are three things that I learned about VR that should help you navigate this emerging platform of interactive media so you can get the most out of it.

Answering the question of what defines VR has been muddled for decades by plenty of wishful thinking. Popular movies such at The Matrix and Ready Player One have made VR appear to be a fully encompassing experience that can interact with the senses as seamlessly as the various stimuli that exist in the real world. While VR isn’t at that level yet (and may never be), it still has plenty to offer as long as users keep their expectations in check.

1. VR isn't an entirely new form of technology; it's a confluence of several different pre-existing technologies.

To put it simply, VR is yet another expansion of stereoscopic 3D media, something that is almost as old as photography itself. There's a reason why View-Master, a company that popularized stereoscopic entertainment even when other forms of 3D faltered, launched a VR set in 2015--the low-grade VR that the new View-Master product offers is a logical extension of the vintage View-Master viewers. Furthermore, two apps that are currently available on Google Play--Looking Glass VR and Stereogram for Cardboard 2.0--allow users to use VR tech to look at stereographic photos that date back to the 19th century.

The View-Master VR Viewer.

Of course, stereoscopic media aren’t the only examples of artists seeking to produce the illusion of space and depth in their work. Until the 19th and 20th centuries, the works of Western visual artists were often judged by how effectively they replicated the realism of the subject: perspective, depth, shadow and lighting were each considered to be essential to portraits and landscapes. There were also panoramas, which first appeared in 1787 in Edinburgh. Panoramic paintings were large, 360-degree realistic depictions of a scene from nature or history, usually a famous battle or a view. The spectators would stand at the center of these circular paintings, which were lit in such a way that would keep the lower parts dim. The panoramas became a part of popular entertainment by the 1820s and remained so until the end of the century. This concept moved one step further with the arrival of the diorama, which included three-dimensional models, sound effects, controlled lighting and shifting still scenes to create a feeling of movement. Invented by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre for display in Paris in 1822, the diorama consisted of a rotating auditorium platform that would seem to transport viewers to realistic scenes from England and Switzerland. Other dioramas opened in cities across Europe until the mid-1800s.

What makes VR different from previous forms of 3D entertainment is the emergence of other technologies that enhance immersion and interactivity. Portable computing, high-definition flat screen video, motion-based controllers, and other technologies make VR possible in its current form. Thus, how these different technologies evolve on their own will inevitably have an impact on VR's capabilities, content and distribution.

2. VR isn't just for gaming; it's a new form of electronic media that incorporates attributes from other forms of electronic media.

Of the many things that I've learned about VR, this is probably the most crucial. For example, I watched the coverage of last month’s Oculus 5 conference and the hype surrounding Oculus Quest, the stand-alone head-mounted display (HMD) that is slated for release in spring 2019. I noticed how most of the hype focused on Quest's capabilities as a VR gaming system, but nothing has been said so far about other kinds of VR content that Quest will carry.

The Oculus Quest HMD, the next step in untethered VR.

While I'm sure that companies that specialize in VR tech and content will make plenty of money from video gaming, that won't be the only area where VR will be applied. VR is already emerging in areas such as art, business, education, journalism and healthcare, so VR has the potential to appeal to many more audiences other than gamers. In a sense, VR is a new kind of electronic medium, much like radio, film and television before it. It will share some of the attributes as other forms of electronic media, but what will set it apart will be its capabilities for immersion, discovery and interaction.

3. VR is a multi-tiered format, with many different levels of content, distribution, and audience investment.

Like other forms of electronic media, the kind and quality of VR content that will be dependent upon how much users are willing to spend on VR compatible technologies. The multi-tiered model is currently exemplified by how the home VR market is currently arranged. At the top are HMDs that are tethered to computers (HTC Vive and Oculus Rift), followed by stand-alone HMDs (Lenovo Mirage and Oculus Go), then HMDs that are built for specific cell phones (Google Daydream and Samsung Gear), and finally cell phones that are VR-compatible and headsets that have been designed to accommodate them. Each level of this hierarchy has its own kinds of content, some more accessible than others. Furthermore, VR technology that will be available at public venues (amusement parks, arcades, and museums) will probably be different from the VR technology that will be available for homes and businesses.

I've read some gaming enthusiasts complain about how the Oculus Go doesn't have the same level of depth and interaction as higher-end systems such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive; on the other hand, Oculus Go would be ideal for users who are interested in immersive media but not interested in gaming, and such users shouldn't feel compelled to buy a more expensive HMD. Furthermore, the selection of 3D and 360-degree media that are available to lower-end HMD sets should not be overlooked, with a significant selection of content providers such as Veer, Vimeo, and Within.

360-degree video, another form of electronic media that is perfectly suited for VR.

The VR market is still in its early phases, so where its technologies will go and which kinds of content they will support remain to be seen. What the public needs to keep in mind is that VR isn’t just for gaming; it’s a new kind of media experience that is rife with potential to benefit users in many areas of everyday life. If VR is going to work, we need to nurture it through remembering what has come before in the past, appreciating what is available in the present, and building upon reasonable expectations in order to chart a path into an attainable future.


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