VR isn't just about gam­ing

JAMES O’CONNOR ex­plores how vir­tual re­al­ity will change our ac­tual real­i­ties

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The Holodeck – Star Trek’s por­trayal of vir­tual re­al­ity, which pre­miered in the 1974 Star Trek an­i­mated se­ries episode ‘The Prac­ti­cal Joker’ – has served many pur­poses through­out the fran­chise’s life. Some­times it’s used for re­cre­ation, for fac­sim­i­les of sports or for run­ning through in­ter­ac­tive nar­ra­tives. At other times it has been used for foren­sic anal­y­sis, or in­ci­dent sim­u­la­tion and training, or even for sim­u­lat­ing the right sex­ual en­vi­ron­ment.

Vir­tual Re­al­ity, the kind promised to us by sci­ence fic­tion for years, is now more-or-less prop­erly upon us. As a gam­ing pub­li­ca­tion, Hy­per (along with just about ev­ery other site and mag out there) has ap­proached vir­tual re­al­ity head­sets like the Rift and Vive as de­vices that will cause us to ex­pe­ri­ence a greater sense of em­bod­i­ment in games, that will al­low for new ex­pe­ri­ences and per­spec­tives. But vir­tual re­al­ity means a lot more than that – it’s al­ready start­ing to change the way that peo­ple train for work, the way they learn, the way they ex­pe­ri­ence the world.

Novus Res, a two-man VR de­vel­op­ment team based in Ade­laide, re­alised ear­lier than most that VR was go­ing to have a lot of uses out­side of game de­vel­op­ment. Work­ing out of a small of­fice in the mid­dle of an open-plan shared work space (lo­cated within a church, as so many Ade­laide start-up busi­nesses are), brothers Matt and Luke Wilson have cre­ated a va­ri­ety of pro­grams and apps for dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies along­side the games they’re also de­vel­op­ing. “Ev­ery day we get some­thing from some­one around the world, ask­ing for some­thing”, Matt says. “It’s been re­ally good.” There are sev­eral fields, beyond games, where VR is go­ing to make a huge im­pact.

ED­U­CA­TION AND SIM­U­LA­TION

In Marge vs the Mono­rail, ar­guably the sin­gle best episode of The Simp­sons, Lisa imag­ines a fu­tur­is­tic VR de­vice that al­lows her to travel along­side Ghengis Khan and learn about his life. “You'll go where I go, de­file what I de­file, eat who I eat”, he prom­ises. This sort of thing is now pretty fea­si­ble, although there aren’t likely to be many can­ni­bal sim­u­la­tions cur­rently in de­vel­op­ment.

The VR ed­u­ca­tion-fo­cused star­tups we reached out to de­clined to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle (which was, in fact, a bit of an on-go­ing theme – it seems like a lot of com­pa­nies out there are a bit cagey about what they’re do­ing), but the guys at Novus Res out­lined some of the po­ten­tial ben­e­fits of VR for ed­u­ca­tion and his­tor­i­cal sim­u­la­tion. One of the team’s projects is a re­cre­ation of Ade­laide’s old F1 track (Mel­bourne snatched away Ade­laide’s F1 glory in 1996), which al­lows users to do a lap of the old track from within a F1 car shell out­fit­ted with a head­set and wheel. The set-up is cur­rently avail­able to play at the Bird­wood Mo­tor Mu­seum in South Aus­tralia. Thanks to force feed­back in the wheel, the Wilson brothers feel that it’s a good ap­prox­i­ma­tion, although the driv­ing model has in­ten­tion­ally been kept rel­a­tively ca­sual to ac­count for the num­ber of chil­dren who will be drawn to it.

The pair has been work­ing on pro­to­types for mu­se­ums; they’ve even cre­ated a full dig­i­tal ver­sion of the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion to ex­plore. “We’ve build a vir­tual mu­seum too, on the his­tory of space flight”, Matt told me. “It’s a mas­sive open space, with space shut­tles, Saturn 5, all the rock­ets. We’ve recre­ated the moon land­ing site in one room. You can walk into an­other room and there’s the Earth and the moon, sit­ting in this huge space.” The pair be­lieves that this tech­nol­ogy will be huge for mu­se­ums, and that more vir­tual mu­se­ums are likely to pop up, where “you can do a vir­tual tour sit­ting at a ta­ble, as a tour guide lead­ing you around the pyra­mids, or a space sta­tion”. As Luke puts it, “if you go into a vir­tual mu­seum and a real mu­seum… there’s not much dif­fer­ence be­tween a case of stuffed an­i­mals and dig­i­tal an­i­mals, is there?”

THE WORK­FORCE

On-the-job training can, in some fields, be very ex­pen­sive and re­source-heavy. Typ­i­cally, training for many labour-in­ten­sive jobs that re­quire the use of high-end ma­chin­ery has re­quired ex­pen­sive sim­u­la­tion equip­ment, but VR training al­lows trainees to test out cer­tain sit­u­a­tions at a frac­tion of the cost.

Stan Rolfe of Barminco, an un­der­ground min­ing com­pany based in Western Aus­tralia, helped im­ple­ment VR training tools into the com­pany. The sys­tem, de­vel­oped by Im­mer­sive Tech­nolo­gies (the world’s lead­ing pro­ducer of min­ing sim­u­la­tion equip­ment, most of it far, far more ex­pen­sive than a VR sim­u­la­tion), al­lows the user to ful­fil some ba­sic training and learn more about the mines and their jobs within them.

“We've found re­ten­tion rates of par­tic­i­pants to be higher us­ing VR than tra­di­tional training meth­ods” says Rolfe. “There is the po­ten­tial to con­duct large scale training in short time frames. There’s a re­duced re­liance on train­ers and there­fore lower long-term costs.” Barminco, an in­ter­na­tional com­pany, is able to use these pro­grams world­wide with a few lan­guage ad­just­ments. “It also pro­vides an ex­cel­lent job pre­view for in­dus­tries such as ours where there is no op­por­tu­nity to go into an un­der­ground mine to ex­pe­ri­ence it be­fore ac­cept­ing a job”, he says. These training meth­ods have proven

IF YOU GO INTO A VIR­TUAL MU­SEUM… THERE’S NOT MUCH DIF­FER­ENCE BE­TWEEN A CASE OF STUFFED AN­I­MALS AND DIG­I­TAL AN­I­MALS, IS THERE?

very ef­fec­tive so far, and they al­low the com­pany to “im­merse peo­ple into high risk sce­nar­ios with­out putting them at risk”.

Novus Res has also pro­to­typed an app for a real es­tate com­pany in Syd­ney, which al­lows users to ex­plore a house de­sign and change it on the fly. “It’s vi­su­al­i­sa­tion, ba­si­cally”, Matt says. “You can walk through the en­tire house, check dif­fer­ent paint schemes, move walls, change things and see what it looks like.” This isn’t the kind of thing that first- gen­er­a­tion VR de­vices are likely to get ab­so­lutely per­fect, but it’s a great ex­am­ple of the way VR can af­fect jobs where con­cepts are of­ten dif­fi­cult or ex­pen­sive to vi­su­al­ize. The two brothers have also been work­ing dil­li­gently on training tools for gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees, which aim to ed­u­cate work­ers on im­mi­gra­tion af­fairs and prac­tices.

MED­I­CAL

While we wait for those heal­ing pods from Neill Blomkamp’s Ely­sium to come along and ren­der mod­ern medicine ob­so­lete, VR tech­nol­ogy may be help­ing with med­i­cal training and treat­ment. Med­i­cal training has long re­lied on donor bod­ies to test sur­gi­cal pro­ce­dures, and training equip­ment isn’t cheap; while things aren’t likely to dras­ti­cally change any time soon, VR may in­tro­duce new and ef­fec­tive ways of training and test­ing po­ten­tial sur­geons.

At Flin­ders Univer­sity in South Aus­tralia, re­searchers have de­signed a hap­tic pen that can be used in con­junc­tion with a VR de­vice to sim­u­late sim­ple med­i­cal pro­ce­dures. Although the team in­volved was too busy for in­ter­views, Matt at Novus Res gave me some in­for­ma­tion about it: “they cre­ated a lit­tle pen that was mounted on a rig, which had feed­back. You work with an Ocu­lus head­set, and you can use it to per­form a very ba­sic lit­tle test. There’s hap­tic feed­back for par­tic­u­lar in­stru­ments. As you move your hand, the mo­tors in­side ac­tu­ally pro­vide the feed­back as if you were touch­ing a body.”

Re­searchers in Canada have taken this even fur­ther. The CAE Health­care Neu­roVR is touted as “the world's most ad­vanced vir­tual re­al­ity neu­ro­surgery sim­u­la­tor” on their web­site. The rig – which uses a View­mas­ter-es­que eye­piece sys­tem that can switch be­tween a stereo­scopic mi­cro­scope view and 2D in­di­rect en­do­scopic view – con­tains 30 dif­fer­ent training mod­ules, and can sim­u­late pro­ce­dures that are gen­er­ally lo­gis­ti­cally dif­fi­cult to train sur­geons in, such as open cra­nial and en­do­scopic brain surgery. This is an up­dated ver­sion of a pre­vi­ous sys­tem that sim­ply pro­jected the re­sults of your ac­tions onto a screen; whether or not a more im­mer­sive VR sim­u­la­tion will ac­tu­ally re­sult in im­proved sur­gi­cal prac­tices is yet to be proven.

VR could also be used in the di­ag­no­sis of and treat­ment of cer­tain con­di­tions, ac­cord­ing to the guys at Novus Res. Luke ex­plained that the pair had been talk­ing about

IMAG­INE TELEMEDICINE; YOU'VE GOT A SPE­CIAL­IST AND A PA­TIENT WHO AREN’T IN THE SAME CITY, BUT THE PA­TIENT CAN PRESENT TO THE CAM­ERA AND GET HELP

de­vel­op­ing an app for op­tom­e­try, which could help to iso­late oc­u­lar is­sues. “We can al­ready do vi­sion training, es­pe­cially for younger peo­ple”, says Luke. “Mak­ing eyes work bet­ter through repet­i­tive ac­tions. But we’re also look­ing into chang­ing the way you can ac­tu­ally see. Ba­si­cally, you can ren­der the world how­ever you want to with these de­vices. It’s mim­ick­ing what a lot of high-end op­tom­e­try machines do, but it’s more ac­ces­si­ble.”

“They’re us­ing it to treat cer­tain con­di­tions”, says Luke. “Peo­ple who have is­sues with how their brains are wired, who can’t read peo­ple’s ex­pres­sions, who can’t un­der­stand em­pa­thy… you can put them in this for a cou­ple of hours a day and train them how to recog­nise things. The brain is very plas­tic. You can re­train it. So you show them faces and have them in­ter­act with a vir­tual char­ac­ter, and you ex­plain to them what this sit­u­a­tion is, what that lit­tle fa­cial movement is. It’s like a brain training lit­tle ex­er­cise, but be­cause it’s im­mersed, it has more im­pact.”

There are also ap­pli­ca­tions that help peo­ple who suf­fer from autism to learn with­out the dis­trac­tions of the en­vi­ron­ment around them. “Peo­ple who suf­fer from autism suf­fer from all the noise, ev­ery­thing gets in the way”, Luke says. “With VR you can iso­late them, fo­cus them. “

Some of these ben­e­fits, the pairs con­cede, are still some­what the­o­ret­i­cal, but med­i­cal re­searchers are in­vest­ing more and more in the idea of VR be­ing im­por­tant for fu­ture treat­ments and pro­ce­dures. Luke likes to imag­ine a fu­ture where the In­ter­net in coun­try Aus­tralia al­lows for eas­ier ac­cess to doc­tors: “Imag­ine telemedicine; you’ve got a cam­era out in the surgery, a spe­cial­ist and the pa­tient aren’t in the same city, but the pa­tient can present to the cam­era and get help.”

FILM

At the time we spoke, Matt and Luke had been work­ing on a 360-de­gree cam­era for a year and a half. “The other side of what we do”, Matt told me, “an­other ex­cit­ing side of VR, is 360-de­gree video.” The two brothers had con­structed a 360-de­gree cam­era, which films events in real time – “no stitch­ing, in real-time, and out­puts di­rectly as a stan­dard video file”. It’s a sys­tem that al­lows you to feel like you’re di­rectly par­tic­i­pat­ing in the scenes that play out in front of you.

The guys showed me a short film they’d cre­ated for a lo­cal the­atre pro­duc­tion called ‘Cold as Ice’. The en­tire sec­ond act of this play is a VR film, in which ev­ery au­di­ence mem­ber dons a head­set and finds them­selves sit­ting in a party that a no­to­ri­ous

meth dealer shows up at. The head move­ments of the other char­ac­ters in the scene in­di­cate for the au­di­ence which ways they should be look­ing, but they’re free to crane their neck in any di­rec­tion. It’s an in­ter­est­ing premise – film­mak­ing where the di­rec­tor has lit­tle con­trol over the cam­era’s ac­tions. This is some­thing film­mak­ers have ex­per­i­mented with be­fore (Lars von Trier let a com­puter dic­tate his shots when film­ing The Boss of it All), but VR film­mak­ing re­quires a dif­fer­ent sen­si­bil­ity.

This tech­nol­ogy will, even­tu­ally, let you do the sort of vir­tual board­room stuff we’ve seen in Star Wars, Deus Ex, and ev­ery other sci­ence fic­tion saga ever made. “You can Skype in real-time”, Matt says. “You could be in Syd­ney with a head­set on, we set the cam­era up, it’s like you’re right here in the room. Once the NBN rolls out, that sort of thing be­comes doable. It might be a while be­fore it takes off in Aus­tralia, though. “There’s a larger band­width requirement – about five times larger than stan­dard video.”

VR film­mak­ing is a grow­ing in­dus­try. Like with games, a lot of VR directors are veer­ing to­wards hor­ror (Eye for an Eye, a VR film about a séance that will re­lease on Hal­loween, looks par­tic­u­larly spooky). It’ll be a while be­fore we see this sort of thing in cin­e­mas, but even the more lo-fi VR de­vices we’re see­ing now – like the Sam­sung Gear VR and Google Card­board – are well suited to VR films.

The other form of VR film­mak­ing – the one that might, ul­ti­mately, break through and en­joy main­stream ac­cep­tance – is porn.

VIR­TUAL SEX

The very first is­sue of Hy­per is best re­mem­bered for its ar­ti­cle on vir­tual sex, which was a con­tro­ver­sial enough no­tion to get the magazine lam­basted in Aus­tralian par­lia­ment. In 2016, vir­tual porn is very much a thing. While the Black Mir­ror episode ‘The En­tire His­tory of You’ may have warned us that in­creased re­al­ism in sex sim­u­la­tion could lead to in­ti­macy is­sues, the pornog­ra­phy in­dus­try has good rea­son to em­brace this new tech­nol­ogy. “Free tube sites have caused many stu­dios to go un­der and quality has suf­fered” says Ian Paul of Naughty Amer­ica. “The adult in­dus­try needs to raise the bar to get peo­ple to pay again and VR is the best way to do that.”

Naughty Amer­ica’s VR pornog­ra­phy po­si­tions the user as some­one in­volved in the scene, on the re­ceiv­ing or giv­ing end of what­ever the cam­era has filmed. “We are ex­per­i­ment­ing with be­ing an ob­server, but there are chal­lenges in stream­lin­ing the pro­duc­tion process when do­ing that”, Paul says. “You can't look through the VR cam­era rig like you can a tra­di­tional cam­era, so it re­quires us to pre­de­fine the dis­tances be­tween the cam­era and the ac­tor. There is a lot more risk of in­cor­rectly film­ing the scene when you po­si­tion the cam­era as a third-party ob­server.”

There have been some com­plaints from users that the par­tic­i­pa­tory na­ture of VR porn can be ex­tremely con­fronting, par­tic­u­larly when your part­ner in the scene isn’t some­one you are at­tracted to, but it seems to be suc­ceed­ing at bring­ing in new cus­tomers, with Paul call­ing the growth rate “ex­cep­tional”.

There are, in fact, sev­eral unique chal­lenges mak­ing this kind of con­tent. Paul ac­knowl­edges that they’re still work­ing on mak­ing con­tent that women can en­joy as well, and that their test videos haven’t been hugely successful. “Some women com­mented that since the woman whose per­spec­tive you as­sume is quiet and isn't mak­ing any noise, they won­dered whether she was ac­tu­ally en­joy­ing it or if she even con­sented to it”, he says. “Since that feed­back, we be­gan hav­ing the woman make ap­prov­ing noises. We know that we can't film male-style porn from the fe­male per­spec­tive and ex­pect it to drive sales from women.”

There is of­ten talk of new forms of con­tent de­liv­ery be­ing bolstered by pornog­ra­phy – it was widely re­ported that Blu-Ray won out over HD DVD be­cause of the avail­abil­ity of Blu-Ray porn, for in­stance – but in this case, it might be the other way around. PornHub has added a vir­tual re­al­ity por­tal to its site, while var­i­ous dig­i­tal plug-ins have be­come avail­able that al­low for fur­ther sen­sa­tions dur­ing vir­tual porn, some of which could, in the­ory, al­low you to sim­u­late sex long-dis­tance with a part­ner.

While there are ar­gu­ments, of course, that all of these new de­vel­op­ments will lead to less per­sonal in­ti­macy, in some cases they may al­low part­ners to en­gage in ex­pe­ri­ences that they can­not oth­er­wise due to dis­tance or health or other is­sues.

VIR­TUAL WORLD

“A lot of peo­ple are say­ing that games will drive VR”, Matt Wilson pon­ders, “but we think that’ll be maybe 20-25% of the mar­ket once it’s up and run­ning. There’s go­ing to be so many ap­pli­ca­tions that have a big im­pact.” Cur­rent es­ti­mates state that, within the next five or so years, the VR in­dus­try will be worth around $150 bil­lion. We may not have ac­tual Holodecks just yet, but VR is go­ing to change not only videogames, but the world around them.

Ehenem re­rum lanist, sen­i­meni­hil eum qui­dem ea ve­lest un­tiur, no­bita corem.

James tests the lights in his new vir­tual house

VR training means not hav­ing to re­place the fork­lift when a new­bie drives it into a wall

Neu­roVR: “the world's most ad­vanced VR neu­ro­surgery sim­u­la­tor”

Training in a vir­tual mine is a lot cheaper and safer than the real thing

VR films like Gnomes and Gob­lins give the au­di­ence con­trol of the cam­era

VR the­atre is al­ready a thing – who's up for a bit of Vir­tual Ham­let?

Sims like Novus Res' Bush­fire Aware VR can help save real lives

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