Guest Editorial: The reality of virtual reality

Chicago Tribune
March 26
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In coming days, people will leave our world for a new realm of gunslingers, cyberbots and other exotic sights. Their ticket out of here will be the Oculus Rift — a $600 virtual reality headset hitting the consumer market.

Hmm, even from here we can see, through regular prescription spectacles, that you are unimpressed. You wonder if virtual reality is another goofy, expensive fad like 3-D television. You also remember hearing about Google Glass, the $1,500 augmented-reality eyeglasses that allowed wearers to surf the Web or video-chat with Mom while walking down the street. Google Glass also failed to catch on.

We own no device that foretells the future, but 2016 does look like the year virtual reality gets its first real tryout. Even so it will take time, as the technology improves and prices drop, to determine if the concept has legs. There is reason to keep an open mind because virtual reality viewing isn’t an inherently silly idea. It just requires wearing silly goggles.

The basic idea of VR is to transport yourself into the middle of the action, whether it’s a video game or a walk through the streets of Paris. Strap on the headset and you are immersed in the 360-degree world of your choosing, able to look in any direction and take in the scene as an observer, or participant.

Gaming is the obvious first frontier, and early reviews of the Oculus Rift are positive. The industry appears to have successfully tamed the problem of virtual reality dizziness. Moving through a simulated three-dimensional landscape is disorienting, but experts say software improvements have mitigated the nausea factor.

One reviewer’s most striking criticism, after playing a shoot-‘em-up called “Bullet Train,” is that the game was too realistic: The robot enemies were lifelike and so was the experience of firing a virtual semi-automatic weapon at their heads. “Did I really need a murder simulator?” Tribune Newspapers’ Todd Martens wondered.

Experiments in virtual reality computing go back more than 25 years, to when developers were trying out $250,000 VR systems. Computer scientist Jaron Lanier, an early visionary, saw the real-world value of leaving the real world behind. “Virtual reality is a technology that makes imagination real,” he said in a 1990 interview with Tribune Newspapers. A theoretical example he cited: schoolkids taking a virtual reality class trip to the Cretaceous Period 66 million years ago to study Tyrannosaurus rex. Heck, these kids wouldn’t visit T. rex, they could become T. rex.

In terms of computing power, 1990 was practically the Cretaceous period. Today, Lanier is on to other concepts, but he told the New Yorker a few years ago that VR was already turning out to be even more interesting than he imagined. Consider a VR game called “Eagle Flight,” in which players become birds soaring through the sky, controlling their trajectory with tilts of the head. Flying like an eagle sounds like a pretty cool way to spend an evening.

Beyond gaming, real estate agents and marketers are trying out VR. So are news organizations. Expect movies and sports to become VR attractions too. Oculus — owned by Facebook — is getting a lot of the attention, but Sony and Samsung are introducing their own VR headsets.

You can explore the concept on the cheap with a smartphone and cardboard viewfinder: Download an app and slip the smartphone into the viewfinder, which looks like a pair of oversized 3-D glasses that you can buy online for just a few dollars. Suddenly you aren’t in this world anymore. You’re in the crush of a political rally or flying in a fighter jet.

The cardboard headset is not a perfect escape from real life — the glasses are awkward and the picture a bit blurry — but it gives you a sense of where we all might go in the future.