Videogames: Toys, Time-Wasters or the Torch for Future Human Development? (Part Two): Entering the Era of Virtual Reality

This is the second part of an article about how the coming advent and proliferation of virtual reality will potentially change the way society works over the coming half-century. In this second part, I explain how VR could be the next innovation in videogames, and then explain how it will spread to non-game-related entertainment, and then finally other societal areas like education, communication, fitness, travel & tourism, and business.

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In the first part of this story, I suggested that videogames and game culture have changed our society – probably much more than you’d realise. Gamification of everyday activities and experiences is everywhere. Do you jog? If you do, you might have an app on your smartphone that allows you to track your calorie burn, and provides useful stats on your routine such as speed per mile etc. This is all to encourage you to beat your high-score, as it were.

Many people are finding that by turning their focus from simply getting fit, to beating their past records, they’re actually become better joggers. This is just one example of how game culture is changing the lives of even self-confessed “non-gamers”. Now, though, a new technology is going to change the way we play, and this is going to impact everyday existence for everyone; that technology is VR.

  1. The Story of VR so Far

VR has started trending in science/tech circles over the past couple of years because of the Oculus Rift – a VR headset that is currently being developed by Oculus VR. However, VR has a much longer history than that.

From Failed Beginnings…

“I thought we were doing the most important thing humanity had ever encountered.” Those were the words of Jaron Lanier, scientist, futurist and musician, when he coined the phrase “virtual reality” in the 1980s. At the time, he was using it as marketing jargon to impress computer scientists and potential buyers for the virtualization tools he and his team at VPL Research were doing. The presentation was aimed at showcasing a new programming language, but the investors were more excited about the glove he was using – a glove that could allow the wearer to interact with a computer in a more natural way than a mouse and keyboard. Despite the intentions of Lanier, this sparked an explosion of R&D into VR technologies, some of which resulted in new research tools and design aids like Ford’s Immersive Vehicle Environment.

Virtual Boy

Despite the uptake of VR from some technical and scientific companies across the world, the VR hype died down in the mid to late 90s because it simply couldn’t be translated for use in the home. Nintendo – the Japanese game giant – attempted to do so in the form of the Virtual Boy, but it was criticized immensely for being unresponsive and incompetent. This was the story all over: VR is cool, but not if you don’t have the computational power to make it work, bro. Every millisecond the response time increases from the input to the display, the worse the experience gets (i.e. input lag), and that’s why you need extremely capable processors to run a VR system.

A Fresh Start from Inspired Minds

Then, in 2012, a Kickstarted project filed by company Oculus VR, headed by the now 21 year-old Palmer Luckey raised over $1 million in VC in two days.

Its target was $250,000.

Since then, the VC total has risen to $91 million, and has attracted a number of programming and technical luminaries to the project, including videogame programming pioneer John Carmack who’s responsible for such influential and paradigm-shifting works as Doom and Quake.

Oculus Rift

The OR is really a passion project funded by and for people who are videogame enthusiasts. One of the largest issues users had with older VR technologies in the past is that they caused nausea because of lengthy input-display response times. However, with 920 by 1,080 pixels per eye and the average PC processing power being > 3.0GHz and memory speeds of > 4GB RAM, the Oculus has the capacity to receive very little in the way of input lag. John Carmack is spending a lot of his time focusing on reducing the levels of input lag on the OR, and if you’d like to read more about his thoughts, you can read them on his blog.

With developer kits being sent out to game makers across the world, and the enthusiast press being behind the project, it was only a matter of time before it gained some serious support. When Facebook just recently bought Oculus VR for $2 Billion, it was clear that there’s a change in the air: big corporations are starting to listen again. The technology’s getting there, and the games are starting to be made.

Now, Sony has shown of their own VR tech and it’s almost certain that Microsoft are working on something of their own. So, VR, it seems is really taking off again. Now that we’ve established that VR is ready to do what its proponents want it to, let’s explore how the future of the technology could roll out.

  1. VR Ten Years from Now

The OR and whatever other VR headsets that companies are working on aren’t likely to be brought to market for consumers to experience in a mainstream way for at least three years. When it does, it’ll be so-called “hardcore” gamers that comprise the majority of the ownership. In part, this stems from the fact that it was hardcore gamers who funded the initial Kickstarter for the OR. But what will the experiences that people will be having with VR be like?

Initially, the experiences are all likely to be games, and all likely to fall under two categories:

The first will be technical showcases by large developers with a lot of resources. These will show off the power of the VR and the technology, helping to advertise it.

The second will be games from small indie devs who are taking the technology and producing weird and wonderful experiences for it.

Games using the OR

Most likely, it’ll be the second category that will excite gamers the most, as the indie market in games is bourgeoning, and gamers are seeking more and more different experience; the inclusion of VR into the indie mix has massive potential. In a couple more years, the technology will be expanded to incorporate more and more uses, primarily in other entertainment mediums. Imagine being able to talk to people around the world – not in virtual chatrooms, but in actual virtual space. Similarly, imagine being able to watch Wimbledon surrounded by other tennis-mad people, without having to pay the expensive cost of actually going. These immersive experiences aren’t really too far away.

  1. VR Fifty Years from Now

If VR gets as far becoming accepted across all entertainment mediums, it’ll probably be fair to say that it has a foothold on society, and that it’s gone further than the original vision set out for the Oculus and its competitors. Clearly this is what large corporations like Facebook have in mind for the technology; while Facebook doesn’t really have any expertise in videogames, it certainly knows about online marketing to wider audiences.

It’s possible that fifty years from now, VR has exploded across a number of spaces:

Education: with a wealthier global population, we’re set to see more and more people look for an education. The problem is, there isn’t the space to educate everyone. In the UK, schools are well over-subscribed and more and more people are going to university. This means that physical space is at a premium. VR could be used to ease the problem. Imagine that you still go to small group discussions and seminars, but imagine if your lectures – where there are 50 or 100 plus students – are all held in virtual space, freeing up room, and allowing you to record the lecture for revision purposes.

Communication: right now, if we’re not communicating face to face, we’re using social media to send text, voice, image or video to each other, or we’re using email or video streaming services such as Skype and Twitch to live stream ourselves to the world. Think what VR could add to the blend. Imagine being able to meet new people in virtual spaces (like a VR Second Life), or do virtual speed dating.

Cats in VR!

Fitness: With obesity levels around the world rising year-on-year, something needs to be done to get people to lead healthier lifestyles. One thing to note here is that those countries with the highest levels of obesity are, on average, those that have tertiary industry-driven economies (finance, marketing, advertising etc.). One thing that these jobs all have in common is that they’re desk jobs, and this means that the majority of the population is leading sedentary lifestyles sat in front of a screen for 8 hours a day (at least). Then these people go home and seek entertainment in front of their computer/tablet/phone screens. In other words, there’s an unfortunate positive correlation between increase in “screen time” and increase in weight. We’re also finding that people simply don’t want to tear themselves away from their digital lives to go to the gym or go outside and jog.

We need to face up to this truth and work with it; VR could help here. Instead of running outside, people could create virtual running tracks in fantasy landscapes (imagine how cool it would be to run through Skyrim!) and then share them with their friends to try to beat their times. This would allow people to work out in a way that’s acceptable to their lifestyles.

Travel & Tourism: Although many people go on holiday every year, a trip abroad is something that only the relatively wealthy can afford. That limits the poor’s exposure to foreign cultures and educational experiences. VR could therefore be used to broaden people’s worldly horisons. Designers to craft virtual versions of famous world landmarks, and model the world’s best cities a la Google Earth, allowing everyone with a headset to experience them for themselves. This can also be a useful educational tool, with school pupils virtually immersed in historical or political scenarios to help them understand the weight of the situation better.

Business: The western world is full of advertising and marketing companies. That’s why some

Woman staring through virtual window of her virtual office

would claim that London is such a success (according to Capitalist principles; not so much by humanitarian ones…). The past ten years has seen the focus of marketers move from paper to digital, and VR could open up – literally – an entire new world of marketing possibilities. If virtual tourism takes off, then imagine the proliferation of virtual billboards. Virtual marketing propaganda could be a way of getting into people’s subconscious while they’re cognitively susceptible.

So there we are. From humble beginnings, and with the right encouragement, VR might just become much more than an entertainment tool. In fact, we might find that VR isn’t something that’s simply facilitating virtual experiences, but that it’s doing much more than that: it’s changing the way humans experience reality. Next week, in the final installment of this series, I’ll discuss how VR might actually result in a re-shaping of human cognition.

[Tom Rhodes]

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