Imagine you are sitting in a theater in the year 1895. You’ve never seen a moving picture and you are about to see a brand new medium for the very first time. Suddenly, a life-sized train comes barreling at you. You are confused, disoriented, and many fellow audience members have run towards the back of the theater in fear of being flattened. The experience is shocking, scary and captivating all at once! The new medium is criticized for changing our way of life and having potential social side effects.
Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat was one of the first moving pictures shown to an audience, many of whom were unable to grasp this concept. Viewers were unable to put what they were seeing into perspective since they had never experienced anything like it. Experimentation and advancement of this new art form will be honed for decades to come. Even today, new interpretations of film are being discovered.
Fast forward to 2016 -- virtual reality (VR) is the next wave of entertainment, communication and technology. As was the case with moving pictures, skeptics warn VR will have detrimental side effects to our way of life and unwanted social implications. Some fear the experience will become so realistic that morality lines will be blurred in the virtual world versus reality. More optimistic opinions claim the technology will allow us to interact on a whole new level, bringing worlds formerly out of reach, directly into our virtual hands. Regardless of how society reacts to this new medium, much like La Ciotat, the train is rolling in whether we like it or not!
Virtual Reality — 101
So what is virtual reality? Aside from a small population of users and developers, the concept is new to many of us. As VR becomes more mainstream, this fast-moving medium can fly right by us if we’re not paying close attention – and may soon be accessible in every household – so let’s cover some basics.
We can further break down different applications into three main categories with increasing levels of interactivity – 360° video, augmented reality and virtual reality.
This entry-level experience is perhaps the most easily accessible and inexpensive format. You can already experience 360° video from your smartphone. This experience allows the user to see a whole world around us, using a smartphone screen as a portal – left, right, up, down and even behind you. At this level, you are a passive observer and can control which direction to look. A user can enhance the experience by using any number of VR viewers made for their smartphone such as Google Cardboard. For an example of great content in this format visit RYOT, which houses a library of immersive 360° stories with a human connection.
Picture augmented reality (AR) as a digital tool to navigate your real world. This could mean interacting virtually with graphic objects and interfaces overlaid onto your reality through your phone or perhaps wearables like glasses or visors – available in the not too distant future. The applications for this technology are endless -- like enhancing navigation (think Pokemon GO) and 3D digital models (think R2D2’s message from Princess Leia). In a galaxy much closer to home, practical uses are available now that bring 2D objects to life through an AR window -- like this Elle magazine cover that activates a video through Elle’s smartphone app when aimed at the physical magazine.
Fully Immersive Virtual Reality
By definition, virtual reality is a computer-generated environment that allows a user to experience an alternate reality by digitally activating your senses. A VR headset is worn and images are delivered to your eyes from two separate lenses. With the headset shielding you from your surroundings and disconnecting you from your physical world, you can virtually do anything... virtually! With hand controllers and binaural audio, you are able to fully interact with your virtual setting. Climb the Himalayas, speak with an historic figure, experience a movie as if you are in it and shoot zombies and aliens as if they are in the room with you -- all without leaving the comfort of your home.
Applications for this technology can be applied to a variety of industries. Tourism, education, healthcare and a modern workplace all can benefit from immersive virtual reality.
Watch the video above in which Xavier Hansen, Senior Program Manager for Verizon VR labs, discusses his unique view on the technology. Where will the technology be in 10-15 years? What is needed for VR to really flourish?
Whether you are running to the back of the theater away from the train, or standing in the first row with your eyes wide open, virtual reality is coming at us and the technology will soon impact us all.