“Everything you can imagine is real.” Pablo Picasso

My first time in VR changed the course of my life. Win or bust, I knew I wanted to be involved in the creation of VR experiences. I wanted to build characters and scenarios that would make other people feel the same way I felt after I tried Half Life 2 in the Oculus Rift.

This is a game I’d seen plenty of times before but when I put on the Rift, I was actually in the game. Being able to look around the train carriage in real-time as it pulled into the station, sensing a depth to the environment, marvelling at how much presence the armed guards seemed to have.

I knew that this would change so much about how we consume our entertainment, whether it be games or movies.

Back then, I wasn’t sure how I was going to begin developing experiences like this or where I was going to start but what I was sure of was that I was very interested in how we accept computer generated virtual characters and worlds in our movies and games. I wanted to see what it was about these characters that helped us to suspend our disbelief and accept any interaction as “real”; was it in the design of the character? The quality of animation? How well the character is placed into the scene? The story being told? I knew that the advancement of the technology would allow us to have more meaningful experiences with virtual characters. The resurrection of VR has come at the right time to evolve this interaction. The articles, books and blogs that I’ve read, the people I’ve met, the studios and organisations I’ve discovered, the technology demonstrations that I’ve seen have all indicated that VR is not only here to stay but will change our lives.

That’s great, but what does all of this actually mean?

Is VR just for a small number of technically minded individuals? Is VR only for those who have game consoles or high-end computers? Is it possible to have some kind of sustainable career in VR?

Why the time is right

VR already had its shot. As far back as 1957 Morton Heilig and his invention, the Sensorama promised to change the way we watch movies. Dubbed by the inventor himself as “Experience Theater” – a quaint precursor to the now famous term of virtual reality, itself a term developed by computer philosophy writer Jaron Lanier – the machine featured stereoscopic imagery, stereo sound and even tilted with the user’s body.

The Sensorama

Then, during the late 1980’s to mid 1990’s, VR appeared again. With the market for personal computers being so huge at the time, VR was set to ignite the imaginations of those curious computer owners. Unfortunately the crude worlds which were constructed didn’t match those imaginations and VR retreated to the shadows once more. However, in 2012 VR emerged into the sunlight again, thanks to the Oculus Rift headset.

The prototype demonstrated that the time was finally right to align the visions that forefathers held of VR with actual reality. The technology and the means to produce meaningful VR experiences were from that point, finally in place. Right now, the Oculus Rift is not the only device which serves as a VR headset but its creation symbolised the renewed enthusiasm to make VR happen, properly. I think that this says a lot about us as people on a deeper level and this is why I believe that this incarnation of VR will succeed. Sometimes, people want to escape their lives. “Gamers also love games because they are exquisitely responsive to the player. You have as many choices as energetic, numerous, and creative game designers can possibly imagine. Real life just can’t compare.” (Beck and Wade, 2004, p.64-65).

Getting close to nature, VR style

Whether it’s for a few minutes or a few hours, the notion of being transported to a fantastic realm is very attractive. With each of us having a newsfeed all to eagerly and easily bringing us a depressing parade of war, terror and injustice, the viral execution videos, the on-going economic hardship – there are plenty of things to desire an escape from. Credit to Ernie Cline, author of Ready Player One – a book where the virtual world is a better place than the real world and you can go “be” in it whenever you want as much as you like. Looking forward to seeing Spielberg’s movie version of this by the way.

But I’d argue that VR is so important because it is more than just that. The idea of another reality has been with us for hundreds of years. From Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to Descarte’s Arguments for Universal Doubt, we have held close the idea that there exists the possibility of another reality. Science fiction writer, William Gibson identified and articulated this in his massively influential 1984 book Neuromancer where he described a “consensual hallucination” created by millions of connected computers. On a deeper level still Danesh stated:

“The human soul is on an ongoing journey of discovery and creativity and in the process uses all the available resources at its disposal to achieve its objective to acquire more knowledge, awareness, and insight…The human soul not only uses the body and its various organs in their natural state but also creates new tools that greatly enhance the capacities of the body… of all the tools our soul has created so far, the computer… has the most far reaching consequences.”
(Danesh 1997, p.37-38).

I believe this is why we should be investing time, energy and money into VR right now. It is coded into us as humans to explore and create; it’s our destiny as humans to find new realms, even if it means using technology to do so.