I’ve been here before. I’m standing on a treeless plain; behind me are massive boulders streaked with moss. A stiff wind rustles tufts of grass, and seabirds wheel overhead against a low gray sky. The flat arctic light tickles some long-buried memory, and I know where I am: Iceland, a place I visited for just a few days more than two decades ago.
But something’s different, starting with the small yapping robot dog running around. It wants to play fetch, so I reach down to pick up a stick and fling it into the grass.
The dog bounds away. I try to follow, but the wires attached to my headset remind me where I really am — in a room, linked to a virtual reality system that’s running a cunning projection of Iceland’s Snaefellsjökull National Park.
This is the experience, at once exhilarating and perplexing, of virtual reality — a computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional world, with the participant plopped down in the middle. To enter this world, you need gear. First you don an eye-covering headset and headphones that block out the real world and replace it with the sights and sounds of a virtual world. Then, mainly using hand controllers, you can move and engage with the fantasy around you.
Virtual reality, or VR, is a technology that has been promised for decades. Now it’s available to regular consumers via a range of devices that provide a 360-degree simulation that can allow users to fly like Superman, swim with sharks or roam the streets of Rome. Several competing VR headsets are on the market — ranging from just a few bucks, for cardboard View-Master-like goggles that hold a smartphone, to $600 to $700 (not including the PC needed to run the software), for flashier, more enveloping rigs.
Virtual reality has been joined by two closely related technologies — augmented reality and mixed reality. Both involve superimposing simulated objects and information over real scenery; think “Pokémon Go,” where animated creatures appear on your phone’s camera viewfinder. Some tech prognosticators see that model as potentially more useful, since AR and MR don’t require users to be sealed off in self-contained artificial environments.
The development of all three ideas is racing along, fueled by an abiding belief that, soon, ordinary people will crave a new way of seeing the world. Global sales, around $27 billion in 2018, are expected to reach more than $100 billion in 2022. That’s a leap of faith: So far, the most avid VR explorers are video game enthusiasts. But many researchers think that the sense-scrambling power of virtual reality might be even more transformative when used by another audience entirely: older adults. And they won’t just be playing games but traveling the world, sharpening brain function, alleviating pain, even traveling through time itself.
How VR came about
The term “virtual reality” was coined in the 1980s, but visions of an immersive simulated world have been the stuff of science fiction for decades. (See the recent Steven Spielberg film Ready Player One for a modern interpretation.) The military conducted some of the earliest experiments in the 1960s and ’70s. That’s when engineer Tom Furness, searching for ways to help fighter pilots master complicated aircraft controls, began working on what would eventually lead to an amazingly realistic jet simulator: the Super Cockpit. It boasted 3-D computer-generated images projected inside the pilot’s helmet, complete with sound effects. “From day one I knew how powerful it could be,” says Furness, now 75 and recognized as a VR pioneer.
Early attempts at consumer-facing VR didn’t go far. After leaving the military, Furness adapted his Super Cockpit display into a device called Virtual Vision. It was a technical marvel, but it failed to sell, and not only because of its $800 price tag. “People liked it,” says Furness. “But then they said, ‘What do I do with it?’ ”
That, in a nutshell, explains why the first VR boom went bust and why the current one is still so heavy on hype. Initially, the pricey gear was too crude to offer the “full immersion” that would allow users to feel physically present in another place, and there weren’t enough software programs written to take advantage of the concept. The downsides of the technology also started to emerge. Some people reported debilitating motion discomfort and headaches; others were turned off by the experience of being completely isolated within the heavy and uncomfortable headsets, unable to see or hear the world around them.
But virtual reality didn’t go away. Engineers kept refining the technology, which found plenty of military and industrial applications. In 2012, VR took a turn back toward the everyday consumer when an enterprising teenager named Palmer Luckey assembled a VR headset that could use software running on a home PC. He set up a Kickstarter campaign to fund production; barely two years later, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg bought his start-up company, Oculus, for more than $2 billion. That reignited an industry-wide race to ramp up consumer-grade VR production, with Facebook, Amazon, Google, Samsung, Microsoft and many smaller players vying to deliver hardware and software. Virtual reality was back, more real than ever.
The current gear is much improved. At the high end, headsets made by Oculus, HTC and Samsung are relatively comfortable and big enough to accommodate prescription eyeglasses; the best ones have additional focusing features to aid near- or farsighted users. Even the low-spec modern VR — lightweight goggles with a smartphone stuck inside, such as Samsung’s Gear and Google’s Daydream — is pretty impressive, says author and futurist Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. “Five years ago it would have required a $10,000 headset to do what they do.” But the question that’s always haunted VR still lingers: What, exactly, are we supposed to do in this brave new world?
The first and still dominant answer is, play games until your head hurts. I spent several hours inside a VR gaming room dubbed the Holodeck, rigged up inside the offices of Mindgrub, a software developer and creative consulting company in Baltimore, trying out a range of games for the HTC Vive system, which allows players to experience “room scale” VR.
You can walk (carefully) around while tethered via cables to a very hardworking PC nearby. A pair of controllers function as your hands. The games themselves can be astonishingly “real” — I shot flaming arrows, piloted a starship and roamed around a wizard’s castle. It was cool. But despite the unfamiliar interface and the much improved graphics, it wasn’t exactly paradigm-shifting; anyone who grew up with an Atari in the living room or fed quarters into a Pac-Man machine will feel fundamentally at home with this generation of VR. Gaming in VR is also somewhat physically draining. After 30 minutes or so, I had a headache and a host of strange mild pains from repeatedly miming archery with my digital bow.
So virtual reality remains more parlor trick than disruptor, useful for arcade-like experiences and VR-based thrill rides, such as those that theme parks are now rolling out. And there’s a lot of interest in developing VR as a platform for more grownup entertainment, the kind that might support a whole new way of telling stories. Hollywood’s dream factory wants to create immersive and interactive films that unfold all around you and seem to be really happening. Some of the most impressive VR-based experiences use the technology for a very different end: to make journalism. The New York Times’ VR app, for example, allows viewers to experience the brutal conditions of Syrian refugees.