In real life, I hate roller coasters because they always give me a headache. But, at the last VR Vienna Meetup, I chose the roller coaster simulation. It was only virtual reality, so how bad could it be, right? In hindsight, this was a very bad decision. My virtual ride took less than 10 seconds before I had to take off the gear to prevent some serious nausea or even a mess in the VR lab.
What this experience taught me is how close physical and virtual reality can be and what the felt meaning of a roller coaster simulation is. IMMERSION is the buzz word in discussions about VR and now I know what that means.
It is extremely impressive how fast our brains are fooled into an alternative reality. Only seconds after you put on the gear you forget the outside world and the brain starts, surprisingly fast, to get used to the still pixelated VR vision.
After this initial Wow-effect, I took a second try at a less risky simulation. Google’s tilt brush took me with another surprise. This 3D painting reality lets you paint with a brush in space rather than on a canvas and it can be walked through. The result was a surprisingly strong I-want-to-have-this-at-home-feeling. This does not happen to me very often…
VR film making and a holo deck
This intro left me very curious about the three presentations announced for the Meetup. Axel Dietrich from VRisch presented interesting insights into 360 degree film making – a genre still in its infancy with many open issues and uncharted terrain. However, it seems Axel has the right attitude of working through such issues: starting with inadequate gear, continuing with technological challenges (like managing a high quantity of data, especially out in the wild), and, possibly not ending with, completely inexperienced customers who are not yet used to paying for all these efforts.
But this will change in the future. The potential benefits are huge. Take tourism, for example. Many ideas for VR applications center around touristic purposes and it is very clear that a virtual walk through a museum or an archaeological site could be an attractive alternative to a physical trip, which usually includes annoying airport security and tourist traps. Or think about education: How cool would it be to walk around an organic molecule and view the interactions with other molecules instead of reading through long prose descriptions? Or to have the possibility to meet other students and work together in a VR classroom?
This idea was a core element of the second talk by Hannes Kaufmann from the Virtual and Augmented Reality group at TU Vienna. He presented his work on creating a holo deck – a walkable VR. And there were surprising results: It is possible to make the brain believe it is walking in a straight line, while in the physical world, the person circles a radius of 21 meters. Funny? Another interesting insight was that VR users can be easily tricked into obeying walls by letting them bump into one physical wall which corresponds with a virtual wall for one time. After this most people obey the virtual walls as if they were real…
A philosophical VR round trip
The next speaker, Tom Hohstadt, led us through a philosophical VR round-trip presented via a Skype connection (also a kind of VR). His use of the term VR seemed to deviate from the usual use of the term VR in the context of technology. However, Tom’s use in a broader context opened new viewpoints on VR as a philosophical phenomenon. I very much enjoyed the comparison of VR with music as a language to communicate felt meaning. Besides some intuitive statements like that the medium VR is not the message, Tom communicated a clear warning that VR contains an autonomous force that will lead our civilization onto a completely new path with paradise and hell only one small step apart.
My personal view is aligned to Tom’s warning. Our individual search for meaning is usually guided by our collectively observed and shared physical reality. As soon as larger groups of people start to diverge into separate (virtual) realities, common meaning will start to vanish and it will be increasingly hard to communicate among each other. This effect is already observable. Find some local fans of a multiplayer online game, for example, and try to understand their communication. It is not so easy to communicate with someone, if you don’t share the same reality. However, there is also an up-side: by exploring virtual realities and how people adapt to new realities we may be able to acquire a deeper understanding of the common meaning of our existence.
Photo credit: Cover image by Pixabay