Virtual reality, a dream of science fiction writers for decades, is the closest to a true reality than it’s ever been. Multiple headsets are on sale to consumers, and while some aren’t exactly affordable to the common person, such as the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift, and others work better than others,the upcoming years will only bring more innovation to the industry.
This isn’t limited to just video games either, although that is certainly the biggest market for VR right now. People across different media are using the technology to tell stories and take users on journeys into far away places. For many of us, affordable, viable VR is still a few years away, but we can sit back and appreciate the efforts of others who want to make these experiences as broad as possible.
With online publications searching for new ways to engage with readers, it’s no surprise that some eventually turned to virtual reality. Places like the New York Times and the Des Moines Register have experimented with the effects that putting a viewer in a certain location could bring. When it comes to talking about VR, one of the ultimate goals is providing users with a genuine-feeling sense of place, which journalism can utilize to tell stories. In the case of Project Syria, an experience created at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, viewers can step inside a refugee camp and look around. Nonny de la Peña, who worked on Project Syria, told the Columbia Journalism Review that it packs an emotional punch because of the empathy users can feel being in a VR environment.
Years ago, during my first Oculus Rift demonstration ever (back when it was more nauseating than awe-inspiring), I experienced something called “A Slower Speed of Light,” which was created by members of the MIT Game Lab. It wasn’t a game, but rather a first-person experience that exhibited special relativity by slowing down the speed of light. VR can be used similarly in the classroom to visualize certain concepts for students, especially when it comes to physics. Even back in 2009, teachers were speculating about whether VR could be used to accentuate one-on-one instruction.
According to a May forecast on the expansion of virtual and augmented reality in health care, the value of the virtual reality market is expected to grow by nearly $1.9 billion by 2020. There are so many applications for VR in this field that it’s kind of mind-boggling. Researchers at the University of Louisville experimented with VR to treat anxiety disorders and phobias, while some at Stanford University used it to set up practice spaces for surgeons. As the medical industry moves more online, the applications for VR will only continue to grow.
This seems like the obvious one and it was only a matter of time before the adult film industry got their hands on the hardware. In March, Pornhub launched a free VR channel that featured 360-degree videos, with people in environments interacting with the user. While some things about sexual relationships can’t cross over digitally, such as body heat and breath—according to Nathan Grayson over at Kotaku who tested out VR porn last year—pairing devices with haptic feedback tools that can provide tactile sensations can increase those feelings of authenticity.
On the other end of the spectrum we have religion, which can utilize VR in the same way that both porn and teaching do: by providing a space where people can interact. Rev. Christopher Benek of the First Presbyterian Church of Ft. Lauderdale in Florida said that VR can be used for those who live in rural areas or who are confined to their homes (although how many of them will be able to afford VR headsets is another issue). By setting up virtual churches, people can potentially feel like they are a part of a community without actually being there.
In 2015, the Oculus Rift introduced a Netflix app that allowed users to watch movies in a virtual theater complete with a sofa, big-screen TV, and ambient lighting. We’re only just beginning to see the ways that VR can play around with typical movie-watching experiences, as it’s the next step from 3D and IMAX. The film industry has been playing around with viewer immersion since 3D glasses were used in 1950s theaters, with amusing attempts such as smell-o-vision failing to grab audiences. It’s less that VR can make watching movies or TV more exciting, but rather it can provide an alternate environment to watch them in. Imagine if you could go to a virtual theater without having to leave your home, for example, or if you could be at a conference with other fans.
Many of us alive today probably won’t experience the realities of space exploration at all, let alone in the next few decades, as scientists work to get the first man on Mars and improve technologies for longer journeys. VR is a decent substitute for 2016, with organizations such as NASA releasing things like a panoramic Mars viewer that places you directly on the Red Planet. This can be a great educational tool for students and provide a direct view of the places that so few of us will get to go in this lifetime.
In the same way that VR can implant us into the future, it can also go in the opposite direction. The British Museum already used the technology to transport visitors into the Bronze Age, and there are more ways that museums can create virtual exhibits. Tours in some of the world’s most famous museums can help those who wouldn’t be able to ever travel, while others can provide experiences you couldn’t get in a crowded, museum setting. It can also help people to travel to historical landmarks, such as the White House. Now we just need a way to make the White House tour more interesting.