I am standing in a café in Lambeth. I look around the room: to my right I see the people I’ve just met, one waving cheerfully. To my left, I see myself, standing still, with my back turned. I hold my arm up in front of my face. It is not the arm I know – it is larger, darker skinned, male. I feel a little queasy.
Virtual reality has been a buzzy subject for a while now. Its newest incarnation has arrived with its own language – ‘Oculus Rift’, ‘Crescent Bay’ – all of which sounds quite fantastical, and a little off-putting for anyone not interested in computer games or science fiction. The technology is fantastical though, so perhaps the naming is appropriate, but it’s certainly not just about gaming: in fact it doesn’t feel too strong to say that virtual reality has the potential to infiltrate our lives in almost every sense.
A brief history of virtual reality tech has seen a lot of failure along the way. Like the jetpack, it is something that we expected to arrive a long time ago. Back in 1992, Computer Gaming World magazine predicted “affordable VR by 1994”. But early attempts to create a product that would allow us to be immersed in a new world all struggled with the same problem: they made users feel sick.
This problem remains central to the VR story today: when tech start-up Oculus announced its flagship product, The Rift, in 2012, it was seen as the most exciting development in VR for years, yet it still made its users feel queasy. The nausea is similar to motion sickness. As Henry Cowling, creative director at Unit9’s 2 3 new virtual reality division explains, it is caused by lag in the refresh rate of the screen that is delivering the VR experience. “The reason it happens is because your brain feels like it’s in an environment and if it doesn’t then behave like reality – if there’s a flicker in the refresh rate of the screen, for example – then on a subconscious level that can contribute to a feeling of motion sickness,” he says.
In the past year, Oculus has been bought by Facebook in a $2 billion deal, and significant technical developments have taken place. Last month, at the Oculus Connect conference in Los Angeles – a gathering of engineers, designers and creatives all excited by the possibilities of VR – the company unveiled the latest version of its headset, Crescent Bay, which by all accounts is a considerable improvement on earlier models, not least in the sickness department. “I got to experience Crescent Bay,” continues Cowling. “It has a much, much higher refresh rate, and basically the specs are better across the board and I didn’t personally experience any motion sickness in it.” It appears that VR’s greatest stumbling block has been overcome.
Unit9 is among a series of creative companies that are betting on virtual reality’s success. The production company has created a series of VR experiences for brands including O2, Nissan and Wrigley’s 5Gum, and the team there is also aware of the potential of the technology in areas outside the entertainment industry, in health, architecture and education, for example. “We’re trying to be ready with concepts that we can pitch to clients or directly to brands that explore the potential of virtual reality, not just for entertainment purposes but also for training purposes – we’re planning a project that helps teach people how to speak in public, for example,” says Valentina Culatti, managing director at Unit9. “There are several opportunities that we think will be interesting once these tools become for mass consumption.”
At the moment virtual reality experiences feel slightly like fairground rides or exclusive gigs. You can get access to the technology but you might have to travel long distances and then queue for hours. Framestore, another company pioneering the use of VR for brands, creating work for Marriott, Samsung and HBO among others, saw queues round the block for its Game of Thrones VR experience at the SXSW festival this year.
Part of the appeal of that experience was in the combination of the Oculus Rift headset with other sensory experiences including blowing wind and rumbling floors. Mike McGee, co-founder and creative director at Framestore, sees this all-body experience as the future of VR. “We are excited about using our motion capture studio to create a ‘virtual self’,” he says. “At present we can stand at the edge of a rooftop on a tall building and look out at the beautiful panoramic vista before us. We can feel the warm wind on our face and our hair moving as it blows. We can smell the fumes rising from the street below and feel the building tremble underfoot as an earthquake hits. But if we raise our hands or look down at our feet, we are not there.
“We want to be able to track the movements not just of our 2 3 heads but of our arms, hands and fingers. To see our feet and body supporting us when we look down, just as we do in the real world. We want to be able to play chess by moving the virtual fingers with our virtual hands.”
The future is here
The technology for achieving what McGee envisions is already arriving. For his graduation project from the Innovation Design Engineering MA course at the Royal College of Art in London, Yifei Chai (who is now working with Unit9) designed the Pretender Project, a kit that combines the Oculus Rift with a muscle simulation device to offer the experience of being somebody else. On paper this sounds silly, another piece of tech hyperbole removed from reality. But when I tried out Chai’s kit, it was truly mesmerising. I found myself looking at the body I know is mine from the outside, while when I looked at my arm, the evidence of my eyes suggested that I had become someone else.
Chai’s work is based on the ‘Proteus Effect’, a psychological theory that when we spend significant periods of time operating a digital representation of ourselves – for example, an avatar in a computer game – our behaviour adapts to that of the avatar’s persona. “What fascinated me was that the effect lasts, even when we come back into reality,” says Chai. “So if I were to play a really aggressive game, I would become more aggressive in reality as well. I was really fascinated to see what would happen if you put a living person into another living person, not a character.”
The muscle simulation device that Chai has designed allows for one person’s body parts to be controlled by another when both are wearing special suits that are connected through a computer. The technology contained within the suits is relatively rudimentary – it is run off a nine volt battery – but its effects are extraordinary. As well as its obvious appeal to the gaming world, Chai has received attention from the science and health communities, with his product containing the possibility for paralysed people to experience movement again.
When combined with the Oculus headset, Chai also sees therapeutic uses for the equipment. “This is the ultimate physical appearance change,” he says. “You can change your physical appearance into anything, you can pretend you’re any person in the world. So it will be good for people who want to have a sex change, but don’t want to go through the physical process. Again, this is based on the Proteus Effect, which is incorporating the persona of the person you’re experiencing. It will be good for people with addiction, or post-war trauma, or who are obese. You can put them into the identities of other people and change their behaviours and that behaviour will then come back into their body and help them.”
While Chai’s emphasis is firmly on the positive uses of his project, it’s easy to imagine less savoury applications of his kit. Yet the edge that it walks is also what makes Chai’s work the most compelling of the virtual reality experiences that I had while researching this article, and the one that offered a vision of how far VR could impact on our lives.
Virtual Reality is on the cusp of going mass market. Google currently offers Google Cardboard, a rudimentary DIY headset that can be constructed at home and then used alongside the Android phone to create VR experiences. Oculus has yet to announce a release date for its consumer version, but it’s expected to be next year (let’s hope this won’t turn out to be a repeat of the CGW prediction of 1992). In the meantime, artists and designers are waiting eagerly for the tech to catch up with what lies in their imaginations, which includes elaborate tracking systems that allow us to move around rooms immersed in our headsets without danger (see Marshmallow Laser Feast’s art installation idea, right).
Those immersed in the virtual reality world envision a paradigm shift akin with the arrival of early cinema in terms of VR’s effect on entertainment, with the future of film, live events such as sports and music, computer games and social networks all being transformed by the tech. And unlike the current VR experiences on offer, these will be social activities, not singular ones.
“Having had the experience of seeing this technology progress as it has done at a dizzying pace over the last 24 months, I’m completely convinced that it is going to be a major influence on how we as the general public access content, consume content and ultimately how we create content,” says Unit9’s Henry Cowling. “I think the ultimate evolution of it – which is certainly what I believe Mark Zuckerberg is interested in – is using virtual reality as a social platform. That means creating live experiences where you, for example, would control an avatar that interacts with other avatars in real time in an environment like Second Life or a similar thing that’s done in VR.
“I don’t want to go too far with this, but the implications of it are so vast,” he continues. “When I tried out the Crescent Bay at Oculus Connect, the scenario was that you were in a separate room on your own and you could move around that room because the whole room is motion tracked. I came out of that and thought ‘I wonder if this technology will be powerful enough that people will dedicate a room in their house specifically to it?’. We’ve had a room in our house – to a greater or lesser degree – devoted to the television set for the last 50 or 60 years, so there’s absolutely no reason why it wouldn’t be that powerful, because essentially the experience of virtual reality, when you get it right, is so much more powerful than the experience of watching television.
“If I wanted to take that even further, to get into the realm of wild speculation, you could say that this technology would replace the need to have other rooms in your house. Because you could live in a mansion that’s just a room.
Obviously that’s crazy hyperbole at this stage. But this is the reason why so many people are so excited about the technology, because the core or it, the potential of that core, is genuinely mind-blowing.”