When I was in high school, I went on a trip to England and Wales with my school orchestra. When we weren’t playing our instruments in ancient cathedrals, we were primarily shuttling between other sites of antiquity like Stonehenge and Bath. It’s the natural thing to do; it was all amazing to us Yanks with our relatively adolescent historical sites.
One other thing I did on that trip, which was anything but ancient, was to try out a virtual reality hang-gliding game in Piccadilly Circus. There was essentially a mini-arcade* where you could pay 20 pounds to put on a headset, lay on a suspended board, hold onto the handle and immerse yourself in a seriously convincing hang-glider flight through a desert canyon. It was amazing. It blew away anything I had ever done or seen on a game console, which frankly I didn’t find all that much fun. As we left Piccadilly Circus – and for days after – my friends and I were excited about the imminent spread of virtual reality. That was in April of 1993.
It’s now more than twenty-three years later and we are just getting our first taste of mass-market virtual reality. Twenty-three years. Back then, top-selling mobile phones looked like this:
About only about one in 500 people on earth had any kind of mobile phone. Nowadays, for every 500 people on earth, there are about 500 mobile phones, give or take a few. Yup, us grownups lug around more than 1 per person, on average, just to make up for the babies, lovable luddites and billion or so people who don’t have access to one.
In that whole time, Virtual Reality was often talked about and promised to us in countless memorable movies but unless you were a fighter-pilot-in-training or made it your business to pursue VR, it wasn’t something most people ever experienced. This year, if you count the VIVES, Rifts, PC and mobile headsets, we should sell about as many worldwide as we did mobile phones twenty-three years ago, give or take side order of magnitude.
I, like at least some of you, find this prospect, both thrilling and terrifying.
I find it terrifying because I fear that for many people, VR will simply remove them further from those around them and the personal and environmental interactions which our now ubiquitous screens obscure more and more each day. Yes, being able to communicate with distant friends and loved ones brings many people closer together, but on the balance, not those in your actual proximity. Mobile phones are amazing things – they serve as our co-pilots, they give us access to boundless knowledge, they entertain us – but their dominant role in everyday life is, and the social conventions we now accept, are, in my opinion, less than ideal.
With VR, we stand on an important precipice – we are very much, after ample foreshadowing, stepping into the reality of virtual reality. Much like phones in the early 90’s, VR could very well start growing exponentially given the current costs. If we assume (and it’s a big assumption) a couple decades of exponential-ish growth, we could by then have as many virtual and augmented reality devices as we do people on our planet. However, what exactly VR becomes is very much an open question.
Now, certain applications of the technology are perhaps a foregone conclusion, at least in the near-term. There’s too much money to be made in first-person shooters, adult entertainment, minecraft and military training for those applications not to materialize. However, what other roles VR can play in our lives and how it is perceived as a whole is very much up to us to decide. With that in mind, I’d appeal to four particular groups – developers, educators, consumers, and parents – to be mindful of the impact you can have, now, in these early days, as we set our courses, individually and collectively. The early adopters may be able to make outsized impacts, so it’s worth trying to help steer the ship, rather than simply going along for the ride.
A huge difference between the precipice we stand on now and the pre-mobile phone explosion of the early 90’s is that the power to shape the movement is now far more distributed. Those now-dusty mobile phones had no apps and did one thing – they made and received phone calls. We are currently poised for something more analogous to the launch of the App Store a decade ago.
Developers, indie or otherwise, wield incredible power to influence what VR becomes in our society. Building for VR is far more accessible than many would think and the communities are already forming to support these endeavors. The barriers to entry are astonishingly low, considering the power of the medium and growing market.
Think you have an exciting application for the technology? Build it. Don’t have the resources for your own system? Pool your resources with like-minded developers. Devs have done a wonderful job of democratizing so many aspects of the technology space for the good of the public and there is no reason the shape of VR can’t be the same. You needn’t be a gamer or designer or youngster to get involved.
At first mention, many educators may shake their heads at the prospect of VR in their districts, schools or classrooms. The costs, the relative isolation of the headsets, the limited media currently available all seem like reasonable arguments against bringing them to everyday education. However, there are two counter-arguments I would offer.
The first is that like household consumers, early adopters will get a disproportionate say in what content will be created in the future. Clearly, there are innumerable interactive applications that would be great for education – be it navigating biological structures, traversing the universe, playing in immersive geometries or visiting distant or ancient historical sites. The possibilities are nearly endless, but many of them won’t come to fruition if the demand isn’t there. It’s up to teachers and administrators generate this demand and steer VR content in their direction.
Secondly, VR is an awe-inspiring experience which will entice many otherwise non-technically minded students to explore their technical side. Whether it’s through coding, creating 3-D models, editing audio or planning game dynamics; a single virtual reality system in a high school of thousands could inspire droves of students to tackle skills far beyond what you might expect. Modern tools like Unity3D, offer an easy introduction to creating fantastic VR experiences and there are ample resources out there to help them along their way. If you are wondering how you could get your school to finance such an “extra” expense, here’s an idea: Tell the students that you’ll be happy to find or fundraise the money needed for a VIVE headset, just as soon as they fundraise and assemble the PC they’ll need to run it. My guess is that a year later, you’ll have enough enthusiasm and demand to fundraise for two or three more.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’d divide VR consumers into two groups – those who own a VR system and those who don’t, but will be forming opinions about it either through usage or second-hand information. To those who are purchasing systems, know that the games you buy and applications you rave about are in essence votes – votes in what is for the time being a relatively small pool of voters. Beyond that, many owners are acting as ambassadors to those family members, friends and neighbors without their own systems and that ambassadorship carries real weight.
Suppose you are the only family in your neighborhood with a system. You are happy to let your daughter and the neighborhood kids play your VIVE and you even switch it on after dessert at your dinner parties. Be mindful that when you expose others to VR, it may be a seminal experience and it may be their only exposure for a while. Many of us have read about visionary applications for VR, like this one, where users can “share an experience” and hopefully empathize with Syrian refugees. Though, I’d be willing to be very few VR party hosts are eager to share experiences like this on a light-hearted Friday evening – it’s hardly a substitute for a game of charades. But perhaps that’s the point. If we collectively want VR to be a force for good and find purchase in realms beyond commerce and entertainment, the early gate-keepers need to make sure those they share it with get to experience those realities, not simply read about them in pieces like these. Download and share those experimental applications and don’t simply let your Rift become your new Playstation. How you interact with the technology and share with others today will be forming norms and opinions that may live on for decades.
I confess, I am a parent who very much tries to limit my child’s screen time. He’s just turning six and iPads are relegated to Saturday morning cartoons and time spent on airplanes. I know there are plenty of educational apps out there, but I’d rather he spend his time reading or playing. Now, whether you share my bias against screens for kids, I’d imagine that you do have your own issues with how your kids interact with their devices and how they might distract them in general.
Virtual reality seems like a natural time to reset expectations and norms around digital devices. Do your kids want a VR system? Perhaps you can buy them one on the contingency that every 30min in the headset replaces 60min on their phone or playstation. Or better yet, once they’ve gotten to be “fully immersed” in their VR for a time, they shut down their devices for the rest of the evening and immerse themselves in the people around them. With older kids, you might agree to buy the system, on the condition that they themselves need to build a simple VR game within six months. The medium itself is attractive enough that it can act both as an incentive and as a replacement for ingrained bad technology habits.
Whatever your job, family situation or feelings about VR, make no mistake, it has arrived. You can put on your headset and play games until you pass out from dehydration or turn your nose up and never even give it a try. But whatever you do, realize that your actions and inactions, are helping to shape its future. Let’s make it a good one.
*That original virtual reality machine costs about $73,000. About 35-40 times what a VIVE or Oculus setup (computer included) will cost you today.
Have thoughts or experiences with VR to share? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.