Look into the future
True virtual reality is finally here.
my first intimate experience with virtual reality took place in an apartment in Montreal. I sat in the centre of a studio packed with speakers, cords and instruments scattered on the floor like toys in a daycare. The only other souls in the room were a musician—playing the piano, singing, smoking a cigarette—and his sleeping dog. Three quarters of the way through the song, I smelled something burning. S**t. I pulled off the headset and I was sitting on my couch in Brooklyn. My apartment was filled with smoke.
I was disappointed. Not because I’d ruined dinner, but because Patrick Watson, the musician in the video, wasn’t going to be playing any more songs for me. It was a little transcendent, sitting alone with another man serenading me while I snooped around his apartment. No lag whatsoever as I looked over my shoulder at the notes and photos pinned on his wall and his kitchen filled with boxes. I didn’t know how easily my brain could be tricked by my eyes and ears. It was as if my cerebral cortex had been hacked. When I think of the first time I watched Jurassic Park, I think of the theatre where I saw it, but when I think about the first time I watched Watson play, I think back to his apartment.
This experience was brought to me by the Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition headset (samsung.com), the first commercially available product to use Oculus Rift technology. The headset comes alive when you attach the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 phone. Through the Note, you can download games and videos.
But there is no way I can convey to you how real the experience is. Even when I tried describing it to friends—superlatives, wide eyes and wild hand gestures included—they would tell me after trying it that I didn’t do it justice. So I enlisted the help of my family, taking the headset home over the holidays. But when each person took it off, instead of describing the experience, he predicted what it could be used for.
My actor cousin thinks it will change movies; you’ll watch something dozens of times, missing things that are behind and above you. His brother, who owns a custom-clothing company, said because he has all his clients’ sizes, he could meet them in virtual stores and show them new fabrics and styles. My dad, a dentist, imagined technology that would allow doctors to see and operate as tiny avatars embedded in a body. My sister, buried in grad-school applications, can’t wait until she can attend a virtual classroom.
“I could end PTSD with this,” said another sister, a clinical psychiatrist, explaining how soldiers could relive experiences. And finally, my proudcountry-boy cousin put the headset on and shouted: “Call of Duty is going to be amazing on this bad boy!”
And each of them is right: researchers are testing VR for exposure therapy. Directors Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro have shown interest in making Oculus experiences. Soon, Samsung will release a 360 degree camera that will allow anyone to film VR videos. It won’t be long before you can watch live video from cameras through a headset. Those cameras will only get smaller, and headsets will evolve into glasses that won’t make you look like a jackass.
As for me, I think of immersive storytelling. The hell with 3-D: this is the beginning stage of the final dimension of media. At one point in a horror game, I looked over my shoulder and saw a human face stretched out like a canvas on a frame. My space violated, I could almost sense him breathing on me. I yelped. I felt like a child. It was terrifying. And completely exhilarating.