Moving past a gimmicky virtual reality

By Nan Palmero from San Antonio, TX, USA (Woman Using a Samsung VR Headset at SXSW) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Nan Palmero from San Antonio, TX, USA (Woman Using a Samsung VR Headset at SXSW) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

There are fads in every entertainment industry. Everything is a fad at one point, but becomes a permanent trend once it is used beyond a gimmick.

You can see this with the advancement of 3-D technology. Horror movies such as “My Bloody Valentine” and kids films such as “Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over”  are often advertised with 3-D as the main selling point, but these aren’t the films you may think of when asked, “What is your ideal immersive entertainment experience?”

Ironically, “immersive” and “realistic” are the buzz words used for selling this type of experience, but the films are then littered by gimmicky tricks like characters reaching out toward the screen and cartoony particles flying at the viewer.

In 2009 “Avatar” was released, a film specifically shot with the purpose of being shown in IMAX 3-D. It made a huge difference and was the first time that many audience members truly felt immersed in a realistic world. The gimmicks weren’t gone, but it showed that 3-D was a step forward for technology when used correctly.

No author provided. METROID~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The 1996 Nintendo Virtual Boy. No author provided. METROID. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Why is this relevant? The cousin of the film industry is video games, an industry which has been littered with gimmicks.  In 1996, the Nintendo Virtual Boy arrived on shelves. It took the appearance of red goggles sitting on a black bipod with a wired controller attached to the back.

This console was known for giving headaches, neck strain, and overall lost its charm after only an hour or two. It was just a toy, an expensive one that wasn’t very well thought out. To this day the Virtual Boy is known as Nintendo’s biggest failure – it was gimmicky and all of the only 14 games released didn’t benefit from being on a 3D virtual reality headset.

Recently, the pattern of gimmicky Virtual Reality technology can be seen with many less popular horror games using the tech to make the jump-scares unavoidable. But if the pattern continues, you might guess that the gaming world is due for something amazing to show what the advanced technology has the potential to do. You would be right.

During Microsoft’s press conference at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2015, it showed off how its brand of VR headsets, the HoloLens, work with the popular game “Minecraft” that it bought the year before. Using the headset, gamers can see changes to the world around them with a type of VR called “Augmented Reality”.

By Microsoft Sweden (win10-HoloLens-Minecraft) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Microsoft Sweden (win10-HoloLens-Minecraft) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

They can see the map that fellow players traverse through from a God-like point of view in which the player can send bolts of lightning, change the landscape and even spawn items to help them. This was supposed to merely be an example of some of the uses for VR.

If I had the money, I likely would have gone out myself to buy an Xbox One and HoloLens I was so astounded by this. This was the first time I saw VR as more than a gimmick. Not only that, but this was something that was coming to store shelves extremely soon and it was within grasp for any consumer who had the funds to pay for the tech.

Not everyone could afford expensive VR headsets alongside entire game consoles. Just for the hardware, it could add up to $3,300 for a Microsoft brand setup and $350 for a less refined setup with Facebook’s Oculus Rift.

James Cameron had to wait a few years before the technology was able to catch up to his idea, so maybe we’re just a few more years away before the tech winds down in price enough and the hardware develops to become more accessible. But in the meantime, what do we have?

An example of what’s to come are VR theme parks where people can walk through an interactive physical space that is augmented by a headset, allowing visitors to have a personalized experience while also being truly thrown into a different world that feels completely physical. One solution for the expense of VR can be solved by having pay-per-use tech like this.

Image of Virtuix Omni in use in 2013. By Czar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Image of Virtuix Omni in use in 2013. By Czar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Another option within pay-per-use is VR arcades in which people get to use smaller self-contained systems that use a mix of the Omni pad, VR headsets, shock vests, and differently designed game controllers for various games. This would actually mirror the original purpose of arcades and cabinet units as they were designed during a time in which it would be too expensive to have that type of experience at home with the expense of computers at the time.

The entertainment industry has declared that 2016 is the year of VR with the cover of the magazine the Game Informer claiming “This is the year.” YouTube has begun investing a lot of manpower and money into VR’s 360 video player along with supporting its content creators to contribute new videos to play on it.

The significance of this is how accessible YouTube has made this for the average consumer. Even though the experience may not be as “immersive” as a full setup with a VR headset, it very much does contribute to 360 experiences as an art form in principle.

Sam Wickert and Eric Leigh, students here at Chapman University, run the channel SoKrispyMedia and recently made a 360 YouTube video called “Channel Surfer.” The experience is accessible to most people with the use of a smartphone, but also viewable in a web browser on a computer.

Of the few VR videos actually available on YouTube, this one stands out. There is attention to using the entire 3D space and telling a story using it. This may not be Avatar, but it shows that even here at Chapman, students are helping develop this further technologically and artistically.

Something big is coming in the coming next few years. A big change is happening soon and it’s clear that anyone that wants a piece of it should look into the many options of virtual reality technology. Video games may be facing an evolution and I can’t wait to see how VR becomes a part of that revolution.

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