Steve Lewis
by Steve Lewis

Did you know that 2019 was a banner year for virtual reality? It wouldn’t surprise me if you didn’t, but for those of us that are paying attention and care about VR, 2019 was an extremely exciting time. As we’ve made our way into 2020, I’ve been reflecting on 2019. In doing so, I realized that despite my undeniable passion for everything to do with virtual reality I’ve never actually spent any time writing about it, or explaining my feelings.

So, I thought I’d take a minute and talk a little bit about how I started with virtual reality, why it’s so important to me, what I hope the future will hold for it, and whatever else I can think to mention. In other words, this is my post – on virtual reality.

What the Heck Is It?

Despite the fact that it feels like it’s everywhere from the perspective of an aficionado like me, it’s more than fair to say that VR really hasn’t made a particularly lasting impression on the general public up to this point. Certainly most people have heard about VR, but a very small sliver has actually tried it in any form. There are a lot of reasons for that, which go beyond the scope of this piece, but the truth is that for whatever reasons, most people aren’t really aware of what VR actually is.

So, before I really dive in to my personal feelings about it, I’m going to take a moment to explain what it is. Speaking very broadly, virtual reality is a group of technologies designed to fool human senses into accepting artificial sensory input as real, and which allows them to interact with those artificial things. The most crucial part of that definition is the word “interact”. In order to qualify as VR, you have to be able to mess with it. To alter it and effect it.

A lot of things might fit under that definition, for practical purposes though, the term “virtual reality” in current usage has come to refer to the somewhat bulky headsets and controller setups that you put on that feed sensory input straight into your eyes and ears. These setups range in quality and price from the remarkably realistic, (and expensive), to the very cheap, (and completely underwhelming). In today’s market, you can try “virtual reality” for as little as $10, but the experience will be about what you can probably expect for $10.

On the other hand, thanks to the efforts of Oculus, one of the pioneers of VR technology, it’s now possible to get a great VR experience, (though not top-of-the-line), for just a few hundred bucks. That marks a massive improvement in price and quality over what was possible just two years ago, which is a big part of what made 2019 so exciting for virtual reality.

All right, but what does that mean? What exactly is a great virtual reality experience? Do you put on the headset, pick up the controllers, and suddenly feel like you’re in the Matrix? Well – no. We are many, many years away from being able to faithfully render reality virtually. We may never be able to do it convincingly. That’s not really the point though.

Using virtual reality is kind of like watching a magic show. Unless you’re incredibly gullible, you know the person on stage isn’t really making things disappear into thin air, and they’re certainly not sawing their assistants in half. Does that mean you enjoy the show less? Of course not! You suspend disbelief. You allow yourself to accept the fiction being presented to you. Virtual reality is the same idea. It doesn’t look “real” the way the real world does, it doesn’t feel real, or even entirely sound real. But if you suspend disbelief just a little bit and allow yourself to accept the fiction, then you will have an amazing experience.

VR has the power to trick our minds just enough to transport us mentally to a different place or let us do things that are in no way possible in the real world. The better the technology behind it, the stronger this effect. In the VR world, this quality is called “immersion”. The more “immersive” the experience, the more we feel like we’re actually inside it, no matter how “real” it might look or feel.

My Start

There are a lot of things that, while not actually fitting the definition of “VR”, certainly contribute to our understanding of it and how it works. For me, my first lessons in virtual reality came from reading. As a kid, I was, (and still am), a voracious reader. I’ll read anything that sits still long enough, and I’ve had a lifelong love-affair with fiction, particularly fantasy and sci-fi. Some of my favorites though, were the classic “Choose Your Own Adventure” books – the ones in glossy white covers with colorful pictures and red and white titles on the front. To me, there was nothing more empowering, or more entertaining, than actually effecting the story – making choices that altered my “fantasy” experience.

As I got older, the love of those books morphed into a love for tabletop role-playing. Games like Dungeons & Dragons are the ultimate Choose Your Own Adventure book. You and a group of friends creating a shared reality where everyones decisions matter and literally anything can happen. As a teenager, my imagination spent time in all kinds of places, doing all kinds of things, and it was a magical experience.

All of those experiences were driven purely by imagination. Every adventure spelled out in a book, or created through conversation in a role-playing session, played out solely in my mind. They were no less powerful, no less entertaining for that, but they existed only there.

Enter, (eventually), virtual reality. There have been attempts at bringing about technology-assisted virtual reality since at least the late 80’s. Many of those early attempts were…terrible. I’m convinced that part of the reason that modern VR hasn’t really taken off the way it probably should have is that the earliest attempts at it were such abject failures.

Now, the truth is that they failed because what they offered didn’t meet our expectations of what virtual reality was supposed to be. By the time real tech was even attempting VR, novels like William Gibson’s Neuromancer had described a virtual reality miles beyond what we could actually realize. The public had been primed to think of virtual reality as something that just wasn’t achievable.

Today, we’re much closer, (even in some ways surpassing), Gibson’s vision of the Net. The metaverse is very nearly real. Unfortunately, not many people are paying close attention any more. Fortunately for me, I was paying attention. Having been primed for the idea of virtual reality by countless hours of reading, tabletop role play and video games, the promise of virtual reality was something I was instantly attracted to.

What’s So Great About It?

If you’ve never tried it, or you’ve only tried a mediocre piece of VR tech, or you’ve only had very little exposure even to the “good” stuff, you may be struggling to understand why VR is such a big deal to people like me. You may not entirely see the point. You may even be falling for one of the more nefarious myths, which I’m going to take a minute to dispel right now.

Virtual reality is not about “replacing” reality, and no one serious about the potential of VR has that goal in mind. Jacking in to the Matrix will always be nothing more than a part-time activity. We’ll always want the real world. To paraphrase Ernest Cline, where else will we get a decent meal?

All right, so what’s the point? The fact is that VR has the ability to enhance reality – to make the real world better. Right now, with VR in its infancy, we’re seeing a huge emphasis on games and other entertainment media. Why? Because VR is a natural place for those things to live. Games and stories are all about engaging our imagination and offering an experience. VR is a natural enhancement to that process.

That’s not the end of the road though, not by a long shot, and it’s the things beyond entertainment that really excite me. Imagine working side-by-side with a co-worker who’s really sitting half a world away. Imagine being able to share space with distant family members who can’t make it home for the holidays. Imagine being able to present ideas about history or science to a classroom full of students by taking them to those things and letting them see them and interact with them up close, rather than just talking about them. All of those things are possible in VR today and we’re barely getting started.

The future I’d love to see is a world where virtual reality is used to let the paraplegic or otherwise immobile experience things that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. With advances in eye tracking, coupled with virtual reality interfaces and other technology, it might even be possible to communicate effectively and interact with those that have conditions like total lock-in syndrome. Its potential in helping to treat psychological conditions like depression, phobias, anxiety, etc. is huge.

And all of that is just scratching the surface. Science and engineering can benefit from virtual environments to model experiments and designs in. Job training that might otherwise be expensive and/or dangerous becomes as easy as putting on a headset. The list really goes on and on.

What’s great about virtual reality today is that people seem to be catching on to all of those things. Not only are VR games and entertainment options getting better and better, lots of companies and developers are starting to tap the potential for VR in other arenas. I predict that 2020s are going to be mind-boggling, and I’m looking forward to it!

How To Get Started

Want to try VR for yourself? As of today, January of 2020, I’m going to recommend you save a little bit of money. Save $450 or so, and go buy yourself an Oculus Quest. It’s the best, most affordable VR technology you can buy, and it is worth every single penny. In the years to come, I may have a different recommendation, but if I’ve convinced you that VR might just be worth a look today, then that’s the way to get in to it. See you in the Metaverse!