How 10 minutes in space and under the sea took away all my VR worries

I swam with a whale and painted a room into existence. In just 10 minutes all my fears about virtual reality were confirmed; it's going to be too good.

I was excited and uncomfortable at the same time when I was given the opportunity to wear an HTC Vive virtual reality headset. I've written about virtual reality before, expressing my opinions on how VR would fare in the United States and thoughts on the future of VR multiplayer.

But it all became much more personal when I left my world.

The premium VR experience

Putting on the headset was an experience in itself. The Vive looks huge in your hands and on other people, so when it eclipsed my head I immediately felt disoriented––in a good way! It was like wearing a really good pair of professional swimming goggles, where my eyes felt enclosed but protected. The headset was plush and weightless, completely different from how it looks on the outside.

The first thing I saw was a paneled white room. If you have experience in Unreal Engine, it was the empty creation space you first encounter. Except I was standing in it. Then, I was given my "hands", which were the two controllers. Immediately they appeared before me, moving perfectly in sync before the white room became a starry space.

It was beautiful and magical. I would have laid down to watch if I didn't remember this was meant to be a short experience. I was able to use my hands as a paintbrush, painting pictures "to life" that I could walk around and inspect from every angle.

The Tiltbrush demo as shown by famous Disney animator Glen Keane

Next, I was at the bottom of the ocean, standing atop a sunken ship as all manner of fish surrounded me. Indeed, it was realistic enough that I had to remind myself I could breathe and that the tiny fish weren't touching my eyes and I didn't need to flinch.

Wevr's TheBlu: Encounter demo

The thing about virtual reality is that it's exactly what it says it is. The difference between VR and an illusion is that illusions can be seen and their gimmick "figured out". You don't figure out VR, it seems. You're only reminded it's not real when you remember you can't actually breathe in space or underwater.

Why I'm not personally worried about VR

I'm an anti-cynic when it comes to new technology, if only because I see its importance as humans advance and that traditionally, every generation is afraid of the next.

I'm no longer worried because VR, in actuality, is more of the same. I'm still worried about my eyes and hearing, but no more than I was surfing the Internet or gaming.

So, I personally opted to be self-aware when it comes to the new. Of course, being self-aware only goes so far. Biases creep up subconsciously, so I've had to proactively not sneer at things like selfie sticks and Snapchat–even learned to love them. Virtual Reality is an exciting avenue to me, but I still was worried about how to navigate an environment when you're "trapped" in a headset and how it might negatively affect my eyes, hearing, and basic communication skills.

But now I'm no longer scared, because I saw first-hand that VR isn't really different at all from what I'm used to. Sure, the experience and technology is new, but the concept isn't. Try this:

  • Close your eyes.
  • Now imagine your favorite memory or being in your favorite environment.
  • Reach out and touch something.

It feels odd, right? There's nothing there and you feel slightly out of place. What I just described was imagination, and kids do this all the time. All VR did was make those pictures real.

If you want to know how my virtual reality experience was, I just described it. I'm no longer worried because VR, in actuality, is more of the same. I'm still worried about my eyes and hearing, but no more than I was surfing the Internet or gaming. I'm still worried about walking around, but no more than when I'm staring down at a tablet or phone. Communication was more of the same. There were people around me who talked to me and I talked back. It wasn't a magical, alienating experience like I thought it'd be. If anything, it was strange for them to not see my eyes when I "looked" at them.

My (personal) thoughts on the future of VR

When the VR revolution hits, it's going to hit hard. The feelings I got when I first played a video game - as I got on a swing, or rode a rollercoaster - all come to mind. There are going to be demos for the masses soon enough to entice people to buy their own, because it's a unique, beautiful experience.

Once people try something, they want it. It's the same concept for VR––once you taste it, you'll be back for more.

I assume that cynics and hipsters around the world will each have their own headset in the next 10 years, the same way they got Facebook because they "had to" to keep up with friends, or their own Steam account to play certain games, or upgraded to next-gen consoles despite their initial "wants."

I still have my concerns about software for VR itself, but as for the technology? I'm not worried. Are you? Let me know in the comments!

Published Sep. 26th 2015
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