Tripping down a virtual reality rabbit hole

Last Updated 26 June 2016, 18:37 IST
This is going to sound like the tech-nerd version of one of those first-person People magazine essays about surviving adversity: You don’t appreciate how much you need to see your hands until you can’t.

Your hands — they’re always there. Even in the most immersive of media experiences — an IMAX movie or the hypnotic reverie of a darkened opera house — your sense of where your hands are is an ever-present comfort. Because you can see your hands, you can reach for the popcorn without knocking it over. Because your eyes aren’t locked on the screen, you can check your phone to make sure your baby-sitter hasn’t texted with an emergency.

But then you don virtual reality goggles, and your hands disappear. So does the rest of the world around you. You are bereft, and it is very, very unsettling.

This sounds obvious: The whole point of virtual reality is to create a fantasy divorced from the physical world. You’re escaping the dreary mortal coil for a completely simulated experience: There you are, climbing the side of a mountain, exploring a faraway museum, flying through space or getting in bed with someone way out of your league.

But in many ways, the simulation is too immersive. After spending a few weeks with two of the most powerful VR devices now on the market, the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, I suspect that VR will be used by the masses one day, but not anytime soon. I’m not sure we’re ready to fit virtual reality into our lives, no matter how excited Silicon Valley is about it.

Getting completely submerged in a simulation is good for things like games, but for most media, total immersion feels like a strangely old-fashioned experience. Because it leaves your body helplessly stuck in the physical world while your mind wanders, VR doesn’t fit with the way most people work at a computer, watch TV or encounter many other digital experiences.

Virtual reality is the opposite of a smartphone, a device that offers you quick hits of the digital world as you go about in the real world. Instead, VR is at this point an experience best left for the privacy of one’s cave — a lonely, sometimes anti-social affair that does not allow for multitasking, for distraction or for the modern world’s easy interplay of the real and the digital.

“I’m a real proponent of being careful how we use it because immersion is not free,” said Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, a research centre for virtual reality experiences. “Immersion comes at a cost. It takes you out of your environment, it’s perceptually taxing at times, and it’s not something that we can use the way we use other media, for hours and hours and hours a day.”

Part of the problem is that the technology still isn’t good enough. People at Oculus, the VR startup that Facebook purchased for $2 billion in 2014, compare their Rift headset to the Apple II personal computer — one of the earliest incarnations of a device that would change the world. Eventually.

The Apple II went on sale in 1977, but a couple of decades would pass before personal computers became ubiquitous. The earliest PCs were also very expensive (the Apple II sold for what would be about $5,000 or Rs 3,40,057 today) and VR is no different. The Rift sells for $599 (Rs 40,738), and the Vive goes for $799 (Rs 54,341) ; both require a powerful desktop computer that will set you back at least $1,000 (Rs 68,011).

Both companies are working to solve some of the issues I had with VR.
A representative for Oculus told me that one of its goals was to add more parts of your body to the simulation, so that you don’t feel as if your mind and your limbs are in two different worlds. Later this year, Oculus will release a pair of touch-sensitive controllers. When you carry these into a virtual world, as I did during a recent demo at Facebook’s headquarters, you can see a representation of your hands in virtual space, and the controllers let you manipulate digital objects in a way that feels remarkably real.

In Oculus’ demo room, I threw 3-point shots in basketball, repeatedly punched a guy (and took some punches) in an unruly hockey game and passed some digital toys back and forth with an Oculus employee who was also wearing a headset.

Compared with the lonelier, hands-free version of Oculus now shipping, the hands-on demo offered less of a split between what my body was doing in the real world and what my eyes were seeing in the virtual one.

HTC’s Vive is ahead of Oculus on this score. It comes with hand-sensing controllers that allow for digital manipulation, and its headset has a handy camera that provides an in-goggles map of the room around you, letting you find your chair and your keyboard without having to fumble clumsily for them.

But even as the technology improves, VR is still something you have to get used to. It’s unusual, in these days of multitasking, to plunge yourself completely into a media experience. You might want to tweet and snap while you watch a presidential debate or the NBA finals. And you’re probably multitasking even when you’re watching something longer and more serious, like a movie.

But VR doesn’t allow you to easily direct your gaze toward anything beyond the media at hand. Once you’re in it, you’re in it; even handling a snack can be challenging. In a paradoxical way, the intensity of VR tends to limit its integration into your daily life.

“In general, we never put somebody in a helmet for more than about 20 minutes, and we give them frequent breaks,” said Bailenson of Stanford. “Being perceptually disconnected from the world for much longer may not be something a lot of people want to do.”

VR also brings with it the uneasy worry that you may look like a fool when you use it. That brings me to the eggplant in the room — pornography. Like most new entertainment technologies, VR has been talked up as being an excellent tool for consuming adult content, but at the risk of TMI, I have to say I was terrified of going anywhere near such experiences.

“I don’t care who you are, there’s a fantastic chance you know the paralysing fear that shoots up your spine when you’re watching a smidgen of erotica and you think you hear the door open, a creak from the stairway or even a random footstep,” wrote Mike Wehner, an editor at the tech-culture site Daily Dot who took the VR porn plunge. “That feeling is amplified to an insane degree when you can’t actually see or hear what is happening around you, and it’s not an experience that is conducive to self-pleasure.”
I’ll take Wehner’s word for it.

But if VR isn’t useful for movies and TV shows, and if it’s kind of dodgy for porn, what good is it today? There are some great games on these systems, and there are sure to be many more during the next couple of years. There are also several useful experiences, like designing your Ikea kitchen in VR.

But if you’re not a gamer and you’re not looking for a new kitchen, VR is, at this point, just too immersive for most media. A few minutes after donning my goggles, I came to regard my virtual surroundings as a kind of prison. Yes, VR is a prison of fantastical sights and sounds and one that is at moments irresistibly exciting, but it’s a prison nevertheless. And before long, it will leave you yearning for escape.

(Published 26 June 2016, 16:03 IST)

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