It’s no secret that I’m overly excited about the future of virtual reality and the tech behind it – I wrote as much about it in one of my earlier posts where I explored the idea of living inside the story as opposed to being an observer to it. Being a true step forward in the evolution of the digital space as well as being the next natural extension of the entertainment medium as a whole, VR is a phenomenon waiting to explode, and as far as I can tell it’s right on the cusp of doing so. At this point, the only real question becomes whether or not the public will adopt this advancement slowly or if we’re one step away from the next craze that sees the masses buy out stocks of these things before anyone knows they’re even there. Either way, this is something that I believe won’t be going away anytime soon and since it’s not a fad or a gimmick or simply another child’s plaything that a parent can snag to get their kids to settle down for a moment, VR has the potential to truly change the way we consume content, learn, or simply relax.
Being an avid film geek, pop culture nerd, gamer and whatever other titles fit those hobbies, VR has always been on my watch list mostly because it’s just so unbelievably future and – in my eyes – ground breaking in a way that not many tech advancements are like nowadays. It’s something that not many people I know have experienced, and while the idea of VR isn’t new (see anything that was tried in the 80s), the technology has finally caught up with the ambition, and every day we get closer to realizing the true potential of what this tech can do.
Recently, I was able to finally get my hands on a working Oculus Rift rig (shout-out to my roommate who dished out the money and effort to make one) and finally got a chance to enter the virtual space…but only for about ten minutes. Regardless, the experience affected me deeply and while my time was short and the “demo” I tried out wasn’t anything overly ambitious or super intricate, I got enough of a taste to crave more, even if it means saving every penny I have to get my own rig to enter the virtual world whenever I please.
Slipping on the form fitting headset and attached headphones brought me into the white space of the virtual world, a large open area where I could select what I wanted to jump into complete with two nifty hand controllers that somehow recognize whether I was gripping each with two fingers or all five. At first I admittedly had a hard time grasping the button layout and controls of the thing, but after toying around for a bit while my roommate loaded up a program in the real world, I was strapped in and ready to go. Having just gotten the system up and running, most of the software at hand was a bunch of free games and tech demos of sorts, so for now, a simple digital art program where I could play around and create something in the virtual space was my best option.
As the program loaded up, the first thing I noticed – as expected – was the sense of scale. The “walls” of the virtual space actually felt like they were feet away, not a stagnant, flat image of a 3D environment. It actually seemed like I could walk up and touch them, drag my digital hands over the surface and interact with them like any physical object in the real world. As I reached out and saw my hands before me, I felt the responsiveness, the fluidity of my movements and as I looked around – not just in front of me or side to side – I couldn’t help but let out a giggle of joy. And no, I’m not exaggerating, I legit giggled as a smile formed on my face.
I looked over to my left hand and splayed out in front of me was a palette of colors and brushes, effects and options, streaks of light, puffs of smoke, sprays and wave forms, as well as a whole bunch of stuff I wouldn’t even begin to know what to do with, all of which was laid out for me at the touch of a button, or more accurately, at the tips of my digital fingers. I chose a color, picked a brush, and then did what any painter would do as they begin a new piece: I began to draw. But this was different, I wasn’t just painting on a piece of paper or a large, flat canvas, I was making art out of and onto thin air, swapping colors and brush styles like it were second nature. I could enlarge my piece, spin it, scale it, look around it, inside it, behind it, through it, above it, below it: the possibilities were endless and the perspective was mind blowing.
I spent another few minutes making sweeping gestures in the air, pulling and expanding my jumble of lines and color, craning my neck and body in ways that would give me a better view of my piece, even accidentally bonked my roommate with an outstretched hand as he was trying to help get me acclimated to the program. But it was one effect in particular that sealed the deal for me when it came to this quick experience: the snowflake brush. Yes, something as simple as a brush shooting out dozens of tiny snowflakes made me realize the potential of this new world I was in and when used, solidified the sense of scale and sent my mind hurtling through various future scenarios of where this could all end up. The simple sight of seeing these tiny flakes spray out in different directions both near and far gave me the chills if only because I realized that when used properly (the tech I mean, not the brush), the realism of seeing an object right next to you or off to the side a few feet away paints a picture of vividness that I wasn’t expecting. When the flakes shot out they settled into the virtual space like stars in a clear night sky, that same sense of scale making me feel like I was floating through space or coasting across some sort of beautiful tapestry of digital code and polygons. It was – more than anything – a freeing sort of experience to be able to manipulate whatever I so chose in such a realistic way, the possibilities of which seemed endless.
But the big thing about VR is that it’s hard to explain to people, hard to truly relay the feeling and make them understand that this is something unique and new and not something that’s broken or pointless. The best way to put it would be that it feels like a mix of what Tom Cruise’s character does in Minority Report when he shuffles through another criminal premonition display on his elongated screen, and the way Tony Stark manipulates and flips through his digital projections in his lab in Iron Man. Everything I thought I could do with this experience I did, and the usual feeling I get with new tech where I slightly hold back as I wait for its limitations to pop up never came, and considering that this was a free art program, I can only imagine where we’ll be once the ball really starts to roll with this technology.
With companies like Oculus, the Playstation brand or HTC going all in on VR and taking it upon themselves to blaze the trail that we’ll all no doubt be following one day, I can only hope that the time comes that this technology becomes more widespread and accepted so that everyone can understand just how amazing this is, how new and different it is compared to anything that’s come before. It all seems so simple, so easy, and the resulting feelings and excitement stemming from this quick look was all I needed to know that VR is most certainly the way of the future. So for now, I’ll take my ten minute burst experiences and continue to salivate every time I see something new being developed for this medium, and who knows, maybe that future where you really do live inside the story isn’t so far away after all.