I needed a new laptop, so I went into my local tech store. The kid helping me was very nice and obviously enthusiastic about technology. As he explained to me the values of various specs, the conversation veered momentarily to VR or virtual reality. Of course I had heard of this, but never experienced even a second of what it meant. When the kid learned of my lack of exposure he insistently guided me towards the VR display.
I figured I would be witnessing something pretty cool, but in the arena of improved video games, in which I have little interest. I was moved by my helper’s enthusiasm, though, and followed him to the VR exhibit. When he placed the apparatus on my face, over my eyes, my brain broke.
I was fully unprepared for what I saw. First, I was flying through the asteroid belt. I don’t mean I was seeing realistic images of three dimensional rocks in space. I mean I WAS FLYING THROUGH THE ASTEROID BELT! The sensation was so overwhelming I had to stop and stuff my brain debris back into my fractured skull, but I was also hypnotised by what was happening. I stood there, and spun around, tilting my head up and down fully experiencing my flight into space.
Finally I removed the VR goggles and returned to the store. The kid helping me was beaming. He had a look on his face like he just initiated me into a super secret world of amazement and he kind of did. We talked for a minute about how VR is changing travel and tourism. He explained that virtual tourism isn’t limited to Earth locations and there are great programs being developed for virtual Mars. I could see that from my recent travels to the asteroid belt. He tapped the side of the device and handed it back to me. This time I was in an amazing condo in Aspen, Colorado with an enviable home theater. Displayed on the movie screen was the start of a Netflix movie, which I clicked on and began watching a film with a better seat and better visuals than I could ever imagine. My brain, having been recently reconstructed, blew again.
This made me wonder why anyone would want an expensive TV. Especially when he explained to me how affordable VR viewing systems had become. They ranged from about $10 to hundreds. Even the more expensive ones were fractions of what I expected.
I was getting the bends from witnessing this technology so quickly. But I picked my head up off the floor, dusted it off (especially the areas damaged by my head exploding), and tried my best to look cool.
I asked the kid how they made the video. He explained that they now have 360 degree cameras and software that can stitch the video together seamlessly. This somehow made sense and my head remained in tact. He went on to explain how this technology was, much to my surprise, much more than thrills. VR was being used in market research, which has improved the accuracy and efficiency of consumer responses. It was being used as physical therapy for stroke victims, spinal cord injuries and strength recovery.
By creating an immersive experience for the user, the VR helps rewire the brain. The brain doesn’t recognize that there is a difference between a virtual rep and an actual rep, so motion iterations can be increased and the difficulty of physical therapy avoided. VR therapy helps rewire the brain the way that physical therapy does, but easier and faster.
My brain had been freshly blown by how amazing this experience was, but what blew it further was learning the VR was more than just games. My biases were overcome and I saw the world as an even more amazing place.
I eventually left the store with a new laptop and my broken brain. I tried to explain my experience to my girlfriend and mom, but words were insufficient. So we now have a date to all visit the store this weekend to experience this brave new world.
[Photo by Knight Center for Journalism, UT Austin]