For years now, many of us have been following the evolution of the Virtual Reality (VR) medium. We’ve seen developer kits and tech-demos iterate into polished, user friendly hardware and software. I’ve been privileged to demonstrate these advances at public events around the world; from London to L.A., and even Shanghai. Through that time excitement has been steadily growing, and now that the first Active VR setup has been installed in the very first user’s home, the age of consumer VR can be said to have truly begun.
Others may still be left wondering, just what is VR? On a technical level, VR relies on the illusion of an alternate reality that envelopes you - an effect produced by presenting you with a wide field of view image that changes to match the movement of your head, as if you were observing your natural surroundings. While this much is enough to create a feeling of immersion (being in a virtual space), to complete the transition to a state of presence (believing you are truly there) Active VR is necessary. This is achieved by mapping your body’s motion to your virtual avatar with the aid of an omni-directional treadmill and a tracking system, which is usually integrated. This combination of ‘treadmill and mask’ is needed to counter VR’s worst enemy, simulator-sickness.
Sim-sickness is an involuntary response, a natural safety mechanism we experience when our brains detect a disharmony between our visually perceived motion, and our internally sensed motion (vestibular and proprioception). The purpose of this response is to stop us in our tracks to avoid any potential harm (such as losing our balance). Overcoming it was key to making VR a viable medium, and required many breakthroughs in mechanical design.
However, on a deeper level VR is far more than an unfolding technological revolution. One could argue that it is a shared, common goal of humanity. One that connects all of us, not just to each of us here today, but also to our ancestors.
The quest for a way to enter another world – one free of danger and the limitations imposed by our physical reality, has consumed our thinking ever since we first became conscious of ourselves. Out of the incubus of our imagination came a pursuit that has contributed in large part to the advancement of technology. From cave paintings to the printed word; from the motion-picture to the VR display, we have continued to defy the existential constraints imposed on us.
To defeat cold we invented clothing; to defeat the darkness we harnessed fire. To connect with others we established telephone lines, generated electricity, put computers in our homes and networked them to form The Internet. From the agricultural age to the industrial age; from the space age to the digital age; now we stand on the brink of a new era for humanity – the age of Virtual Reality.
We finally have the means to take that first step into a world that was not forced upon us. Earth is a beautiful planet; but it is not beautiful for everyone, everywhere. Life here is not always kind or fair. The dream our ancestors had, lives on in us today. We want to escape, not forever - but for a time. We want to see places we could never go, meet people we could never encounter, do things we could never hope to achieve. VR is freedom, the kind humanity has been seeking all along, not only to add more lustre and enjoyment to our lives, but to prove to ourselves that we are not mere animals - that there is more to life than pure survival.
This is only the beginning, and VR will continue to improve over the coming years. The ramifications of this new medium for our health and happiness will likely prove to be profound. As profound as irrigation, vaccination, and education have been. I believe VR will come to be seen as a turning point for our civilisation, and access to it a human right. There is still a long way to go until it becomes universally adopted, but in the meantime I invite you to join me as I and others explore this new world, this new beginning.