The Realities of Virtual Reality
Locals look into VR and see more than video games
Driving down a dilapidated street, my car comes to a T in the road. I turn my head side to side; neither direction looks inviting. Run-down buildings loom over empty streets. Right seems as good a choice as any, and the wheels crush detritus as I go around the corner. I'm getting a feel for how the car handles now, but the road that appeared to continue to the horizon comes to an abrupt end. Without any signage or blockade, the lines on the street end with a drop into a ravine. The zombies I'm supposed to be mowing down must be in the other direction. The engine rumbles impatiently as I contemplate the craggy asphalt below. The undead will have to wait. I throw the car into reverse, putting space between me and the precipice before gunning it, flying over the edge. My flight lasts mere seconds before taking a nosedive, and I plummet to the rocks below.
I'm in a world created by a game development company called Ghost Machine. On the surface, it doesn't seem all that unique. Games about zombies and cars are a dime a dozen. But a much-ballyhooed gadget has turned what might have been a humdrum experience into something much more. The Oculus Rift virtual reality headset takes environments off the screen and puts them on (some might say in) your head. Using the same technology found in the average smartphone, the Rift tracks head orientation and renders 3-D worlds that surround users in 360 degrees. The effect of the device ranges from jaw-dropping to unsettling. Wired declared on its June cover that the Rift would change everything from TV to sex to art, and Facebook's $2 billion purchase of the company has only fueled the burning expectations for the tech even more. Whether that's a hyperbolic characterization or astute prediction, there's no denying that one's initial Rift experience is acutely memorable.
I remove the Oculus Rift headset after my Thelma & Louise-esque demise to find myself back in Ghost Machine's Austin office. The pride of finding a unique way to die in the company's game, Zombie Taxi Apocalypse, is tempered by beads of sweat on my brow and a slowly churning stomach, a sensation I associate with motion sickness. Yet, I haven't moved an inch. Clearly the jump between reality and the post-apocalyptic world created by Neal Nellans has not left me unscathed. I tell Nellans and his business partner Burnes Hollyman that I need a second to let my body and brain realign before my next dive into an all-encompassing world. The duo are no strangers to this reaction. It's an early lesson in making experiences for virtual reality: Few people last very long in a jet fighter, zooming car, or speedy avatar's shoes without getting a little woozy.
Turns out that in the same way reading a book in a car can make some people sick is also true in virtual reality. When your eyes perceive stillness and yet your body feels acceleration and turns (as in a moving car or plane), sickness can follow. In VR, your eyes see movement and yet your body remains still. The effect can be jarring at first and nauseating soon after. The Oculus Rift website recommends developers program virtual movement no faster than 1.3 meters per second, which is a hair slower than the average walking human. Not exactly the high-speed action that hardcore gamers might be used to.
When Oculus Rift was making its first millions on Kickstarter back in August 2012, word that virtual reality lived up to the hype was starting to spread. Gamers salivated as the day of living in their favorite worlds seemed to draw near. Two years on and the Oculus Rift still isn't technically for sale to the public yet. If you've tried a Rift, then you've used what's known as a development kit. It allows individuals and businesses to work on programs for the technology before the final product hits store shelves and online shopping carts. Hollyman recognizes that Ghost Machine's sole focus on VR development is risky. "In effect we're making records for a record-player technology that doesn't exist in the marketplace yet."
And they're not alone. A growing number of locals are betting on VR mania when the Oculus Rift is released, a date that has yet to be announced although is predicted for late this year or early 2015. Chalk up some of that excitement to the fact that the rules of VR design are largely unwritten. No one knows how the tech can or will be used. But there are more than a few good ideas out there.
The University of Texas Visualization Laboratory (Vislab) goes big. It has a massive wall of hi-def screens, a touch screen the size of a table, and computing power that makes big data shake in its boots. But Oculus Rift's relatively tiny headset struck Luis Francisco-Revilla and Heriberto Nieto as a perfect fit for their lab, which uses technology to help professors and students present data in uniquely useful ways. As Francisco-Revilla puts it, "Our job is to help get the output of our supercomputer into the heads of people." It wasn't long after receiving their Rift that English professor Janine Barchas walked into the lab with What Jane Saw. What better name for a project to pair with a device offering a first-person perspective?
The titular Jane would turn out to be Jane Austen. Don't get too invested in a cyber Mr. Darcy dancing you around a ballroom though. While fun, the educational value of a nice country dance from the Regency era is negligible. Barchas instead came to the Vislab with a re-creation of what many consider the greatest art exhibition of Austen's era: the portraits of Sir Joshua Reynolds. She had meticulously arranged them as Austen saw them; the paintings placed in relation to their subjects' fame, prestige, and relationships to one another. After all the research required to achieve the re-creation of the 1813 exhibition, Barchas naturally wanted her labor to be seen by as many people as possible. The Vislab's latest toy offered a hook, and Barchas didn't hesitate: "If we can make Jane Austen more sexy, and make her Regency world with its emphasis on celebrity culture and its emergence of modern material culture seem more palpable, then I've won."
UT's Center for the Study of Ancient Italy has also gotten in on the virtual action. As Michael Thomas works on-site at Oplontis – a town near Pompeii covered in ash by Mount Vesuvius and excavated in the middle of the last century – Vislab manager Nieto is helping to create a fully immersive model of one of the villas. The team hopes to have a faithful re-creation of the 25,000-square-foot structure and offer users the option to explore the structure as it stands now and how it looked during the reign of the Roman Empire. Francisco-Revilla hopes to take the project even further by simulating people to give a sense of population density and how different social classes interacted at the time.
The Vislab's future plans for virtual reality integration include ventures with the School of Architecture, rendering buildings that can be walked around and through. Nieto and Francisco-Revilla will also work with the neuroscience department to study how the brain perceives virtual environments vs. the real world. This research, in particular, might interest developers working in the medium who continue to experiment with people's eyes and brains through trial and error.
Robin Arnott enjoys getting in people's heads. His previous project, Deep Sea, involves a gas mask, joystick, an invisible sea monster, and a breath monitor – all in service of freaking players out. Deep Sea creates immersion through sensory deprivation, and it's unnerving, to put it mildly. Arnott's current project, SoundSelf, also seeks deep immersion, but to an entirely different end. This time around, the goal is to manipulate the senses to achieve a trancelike state. Using the Oculus Rift and a microphone, SoundSelf encourages long, sustained chanting by the player and translates those sounds into abstract audio and visual feedback. By monitoring the rhythm, timbre, and pitch of your voice SoundSelf looks for subtle changes and alters the feedback to bring you deeper into the experience. He says, "It's really important to me that this feel like a conversation, that SoundSelf feels like a living entity conversing with you, dancing with you."
SoundSelf breaks one of the cardinal rules of virtual reality: It doesn't follow the motion of your head. The swirling and vibrating images remain directly in your line of sight no matter where you look. But creating a realistic world was never Arnott's goal. The purpose is not to explore things around you, but to find transcendence within. He wants to help you turn off your brain in order to achieve a distractionless appreciation for the present moment.
SoundSelf was originally designed for tablets. This was before Arnott caught the Oculus bug. "As soon as I learned about the Oculus Rift, it changed overnight from an iPad project to a virtual reality project," Arnott admits. "With SoundSelf, because the entire interaction is between your perception and your imagination, it's extremely important that I have a really high-bandwidth plug into your brain." Sure, TV and computer screens are great, but when those screens hug your face and you put on headphones, the outside world disappears. When that happens, SoundSelf's ecstatic tendrils can truly massage your mind.
The Oculus Rift isn't the only virtual kid on the block. Sony announced Project Morpheus earlier this year, but it requires a PlayStation4 ($400), and that's a significant barrier to entry. The Rift's compatibility with most existing PCs gives it a significantly larger consumer base. Oculus-like visors are already hitting the market that allow you to drop in an ordinary smartphone and get a virtual reality experience for a fraction of the price. Google also threw its hat into the ring, releasing instructions for making Cardboard: a cell phone-holding headset that you can make out of – you guessed it – cardboard. It was a half-joke, but it worked, and the punch line might as well be: "Virtual reality is closer than you think." With the App Store and Google Play a mere tap or swipe away, the infrastructure for distribution is built in, and there are few things consumers like more than convenience. The main limitation with smartphones is their processing power, which pales in comparison to the average PC. Regardless of who comes out on top or who flounders, the takeaway is that VR is gaining traction, and businesses and consumers are intrigued with the possibilities. For now, developers will have to guess which virtual experiences the public will embrace and which will be rejected, but it's only a matter of time.
The reality of virtual reality grows closer. As I write this, the second generation Oculus Rift development kits are landing on doorsteps. They promise increased reaction time to head orientation that will, in theory, lessen motion sickness. Their Development Kit 2 also boasts new head-tracking capabilities that allow you to not only look down at your feet while standing on a cliff but to lean forward and peer over into the abyss. If you want to know what's down there, you'll have to take the leap.