Have you ever surfed a barrel in Tahiti? Climbed the tallest building in the world? Worn a dress worth a million dollars? You could soon tick these experiences off your bucket list, virtually speaking. All you need to do is cover your eyes – with a headset.
“Throughout history, people’s life experiences have continually been reshaped with the rise of new mediums of technology,” says Eric Lin, senior manager, solution and software PM division of the IT product business at Acer Inc., which recently announced it has formed a joint venture with Stockholm-based Starbreeze AB to design and manufacture a new type of virtual reality (VR) headset for location-based entertainment. “We are witnessing the emergence of an immersive, dynamic way of storytelling,” says Eric.
Deloitte Global predicts that the VR market will have its first billion-dollar year in 2016, with around US$700 million in hardware sales and the remainder from software and content. Mark Zuckerberg says VR is going to “change the way we live and work and communicate.” Meanwhile Bill Gates and Warren Buffet recently filmed a three-minute VR video in which they drive around an annual shareholder meeting in a golf cart, stop at Dairy Queen and play the ukulele. “It’s important that the entire virtual reality ecosystem is ready for the technology,” says Eric.
So, how exactly does it work? One VR headset, the StarVR Head-Mounted Display, offers wearers a 210-degree field of view, compared to 110 degrees on existing VR headsets, thanks to two high-definition displays over each eye. Basically, this means the user can move their eyes freely in any direction without the sensation of wearing blinders or dizziness that some conventional VR displays can cause.
Already, IMAX cinemas plan to install StarVR head mounts in selected cinemas by the end of the year, but this is only the beginning. “The potential virtual reality user base spans a very wide scope,” says Eric. “From gaming arcades to automotive retail and aviation training, it could potentially offer guidance to surgeons operating on patients or architects that require accurate renditions of their designs.”
It has been over 80 years since science fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum predicted in his book Pygmalion’s Spectacles that one day a pair of goggles would allow the wearer to experience a fictional world through holographics. Now, his forecast of the future has become a (virtual) reality.
From VR comedy shows to casinos and orchestras, the technology is quickly transforming how we entertain ourselves. Earlier this year British theme park Alton Towers opened ‘Galactica’, it’s first virtual reality rollercoaster (“Blast through an advanced space travel portal to another dimension”) and Cannes Film Festival has added a ‘Virtual Reality Shorts’ category to its competition.
Even Pokémon Go may soon have a VR element. Eagle-eyed gamers have noticed that, at the bottom of the games settings in a section marked ‘Licenses’, it lists Google Cardboard, the VR viewer developed by the search engine, as an open source software that went into the making of the app. Costing less than $20, Google Cardboard shipped over 5 million units in its first 19 months on sale.
“We’ve found that virtual reality, rather than isolating people, can be a very social experience,” says Landon Curry, managing director at animation studio Red Cartel, which helped launch the world’s first virtual reality department store with eBay Australia and Myer earlier this year. “You can play VR games with multiple people from around the world. It’s also a great spectator sport. We have groups of people watching someone interact inside a virtual reality experience.”
But, it’s not all fun and games. The Swiss Armed Forces are using VR technology to teach the army, police and civilian volunteers to work together in conflict situations. Global design and strategy studio Frog has developed a clinical headset called VR Care, designed to be used by burns patients to distract them during painful bandage changes. The prototype can be used lying down and is thrown away after one use to avoid spreading infection.
Charities are even using VR to make people more compassionate – and generous – with organisations such as Unicef, Cancer Research UK and social enterprise TOMS using VR videos to bring their campaigns to life. Could you say no to a virtual representation of a 12-year-old girl in a Syrian refugee camp?
In a TED talk, visual artist Chris Milk, who has created music videos for Kanye West and U2, calls VR the “ultimate empathy machine” because of its ability to pull viewers’ heart strings. But is the mass market ready to embrace virtual reality? Acer, which invests in the StarVR headset, admits it may currently be too expensive for the average consumer. That’s why the company is currently targeting corporations like IMAX, as well as big brands and research centres. “We plan to enter the consumer VR market three years later,” says Eric.
As well as cost, the other challenges are comfort and cleanliness. People don’t like wearing headsets when trying to relax in a cinema. We also don’t like wearing headsets that other people have worn before us. “To overcome this, we need to develop ergonomic designs that offer users a comfortable fit,” says Eric. “We also need to ensure the interchangeability of parts that come into contact with users’ skin, which is necessary for maintaining good hygiene.”
The ideal solution is not having to wear a headset at all. So, there is currently a tech race to develop the world’s first virtual reality contact lenses, while ‘bare hand input’ technology will eliminate the need to wear gloves to move imaginary objects. For now, virtual reality is all in your head(set) – the destination is up to you.