Skeptics and obstacles might not stop virtual reality

Is VR the future? Despite stops and starts, a few moments of transcendence.

This is a story about virtual reality that could make you feel skeptical. You may shake your head and say to yourself, “Well, that’s never going to happen.”

Because we’ve been through this before. Remember a few years ago when technology pundits said everything we watched on television was going to be in glorious screen-busting 3-D? That didn’t really work out so well, though 3-D TVs and Blu-rays are still being sold. Remember flying cars, the Segway that was supposed to change transportation, or Google Wave? These were game-changing ideas that didn’t really change any games.

And now here’s another wave of hype about virtual reality, which had a heyday of attention in the 1990s, disappeared in a blip of bad movie thrillers and clunky gear, only to return with a vengeance now that tech has matured and our appetite for the Next Tech Thing remains insatiable.

Is virtual reality — fully immersive spaces that surround us with sight and sound in 360 glorious degrees — the future?

Yes. No. Maybe.

My ambivalence about virtual reality follows several months of trying out different forms in its current, still-in-progress state. It comes from being disappointed with lackluster experiences, then having my perceptual doors blown out by others.

Yes: It’s so compelling, a new medium for expressing information and sensation, that it has to be the future.

No: There are too many technological and physiological hurdles. Besides, who wants to live in a virtual world while the body stays behind in a blindfolded stasis?

Maybe: We’re smart. We’ll figure it out and take the best of this technology and move forward. Perhaps.

What is VR?

In the future, as foretold in the popular novel “Ready Player One” from Austinite Ernest Cline, we may be forging new identities in a digital world where we can touch, taste, smell and travel at superspeeds.

Today, though, VR is far humbler. Typically it means wearing some sort of goggles to view 360-degree video, which requires special kinds of cameras to shoot.

Facebook-owned Oculus, which started as a 2013 Kickstarter project, helped fuel interest in virtual reality hardware, and since then HTC, Samsung, Sony and Microsoft, among other companies, have gotten into the race to design the best headgear to put people into new digital realities. Oculus has been available only to developers so far and is expected to be for sale to the public next year.

But a much more basic version of VR can be had much more cheaply and right now. Google has been instrumental in getting cardboard (yes, literally, “made of cardboard”) goggles that allow users to pop their smart phones in and view 360-degree video right off the Web.

Who’s pushing for a VR future?

Last week The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Associated Press all debuted virtual-reality initiatives, giving news consumers ways to view VR videos using technology such as Google Cardboard cheaply and easily.

It would be a way to, say, offer a full view of a war zone, a crime scene or even just a really well-furnished home as part of a story.

Filmmakers are also being given the nudge to try to advance the medium of VR moviemaking. Sundance last week announced a VR residency.

And a few weeks ago, Austin played host to a touring Kaleidoscope VR Film Fest at Brazos Hall.

It was a chance to get a taste of what’s possible in the current generation of virtual reality via a selection of shorts in genres including documentary, animation, live-action and real-time experience.

About 30 Samsung Gear VR headsets, equipped with snapped-on Samsung smartphones and a separate pair of headphones, were the vehicle for these virtual-reality flights. Three Oculus Rift units, one of which was having technical problems that night, were also available for specific demos not available on the Gear VR sets.

On one side of the large room, two long rows of white swivel chairs were set up, and this was where most of the attendees took turns selecting from about 20 films.

It was strange, a large room of people sitting in chairs, their heads literally wrapped in technology, swiveling their necks around to see things the outside world couldn’t.

And here my skepticism about VR was stoked. The films, to put it nicely, just weren’t there yet. There were no compelling narratives, no documentaries in which the virtual reality added much that basic 3-D couldn’t, and very little that didn’t feel like a ho-hum amusement park ride. It bummed me out a little. This was the future we’ve been waiting for?

Kaleidoscope VR founder and Austin native René Pinnell all but acknowledged that gap in remarks to the audience. “The operative word here is ‘potential,’” he said of the medium. “It’s gonna take a lot of hard work to learn from (these films). And then go and do better.”

Changing the games with VR

The skepticism I experienced at the VR Film Fest stayed with me for a while, glooming up my view of virtual reality.

But then I remembered the good experiences I’ve had with VR that left me a little shaken, excited and hungry for more. Last year, HBO delivered a stunning VR demo at South by Southwest Interactive featuring the Wall from “Game of Thrones” in a booth with simulated wind.

Austin’s Chaotic Moon has been pushing hard in VR and has had two very winning public demos, in addition to the super-secret stuff they do for companies and are not allowed to discuss. One of them, “Shark Punch,” is exactly what it sounds like: a virtual reality exploration into what it’s like to punch a shark in its stupid, biting face. (Don’t worry, no actual sharks are harmed.)

“Death From Above” is a two-player game in which one person drops bombs with an iPad and a person wearing an Oculus Rift headset uses a steering wheel to try to avoid those bombs while driving. It’s ridiculous, fun and engaging in a way that most staid VR demos are not.

Ben Lamm, CEO of Chaotic Moon, is unequivocal about his belief in VR, as well as “augmented reality,” a blending of the virtual and the physical that he believes VR will eventually lead to.

“There’s absolutely zero doubt that this is the future. It’s that simple,” Lamm said. VR and AR, he says, present his company with “crazy opportunities to innovate. That’s why I believe there’s no other choice but to completely dive into this space and take this thing to 11 by dedicating time, our smartest and most creative people and a hell of a lot of money.”

VR’s challenges

Mediocre VR, Lamm says, is a failure to craft unforgettable experiences or to overcome the technical hurdles.

That includes the wires that some VR headsets will have to use until there’s more advancement in transmitting tons of data wirelessly, the issue of how people interact with these spaces (game controllers? Gestures? Buttons on the headsets themselves?), and prices when products like Sony’s Morpheus or Oculus Rift finally debut. Not to mention the challenge of not making people motion sick.

Will true, quality VR cost early adopters $1,500 per set, or something closer to the $300 they might spend on a video game console?

And will people be satisfied with virtual reality delivered in low-res, budget goggles or phone-equipped cardboard goggles?

The most recent VR experience I had was in a small black room, part of a trailer where I used a version of HTC’s upcoming Vive headset, a pair of headphones and two throttle-like hand controllers.

This wasn’t virtual reality where I had to sit in a chair or limit my movement. I could walk around the room, paint with spectacular neon brushes with Google’s “Tilt Brush” software, watch a whale swim by in a convincingly realistic undersea app.

Owlchemy Labs, an Austin games company transplanted here from Boston about a year and a half ago, showed “Job Simulator,” a playful cartoon-animation-style set of scenes in which I could grab a coffee and virtually drink it, make a pretend photocopy of my big, virtual hand and even cook some soup in the office kitchen.

Alex Schwartz, CEO of Owlchemy, says there are huge technical hurdles to overcome, but his 11-person company is ecstatic about what you can do with a headset, good touch controls that make your hands feel like functional hands and an open space. And there’s a developer community just as excited.

“Everyone wants VR to succeed,” Schwartz said. “There’s a great vibe in the VR community.”

I’ve been a skeptic of VR, but in those moments in a tiny room, submerged with a whale, laughing at the “Office Space”-inspired jokes in a virtual office populated by robots, moving amid floating brushstrokes of virtual neon paint, I didn’t want to come back. At least not right away.

The goggles off, the black room coming back into focus, I yearned to return to this place I’d assumed was some sort of dystopian endgame. But there’s wit and beauty and intelligence there, a lot of new experiences for the harnessing, a glimpse of something that could change entertainment, but also medicine, education, love, travel, politics, more.

And right at that fleeting moment, it’s possible to put skepticism aside. It really did feel like the future.

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