VR isn't just about gaming
JAMES O’CONNOR explores how virtual reality will change our actual realities
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?”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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