It was 2016 when I first stepped into virtual reality. Excitedly, I assembled my fancy new cardboard box, slid my phone behind its lenses, and fastened it to my head with velcro straps. Little did I know then, how advancements in this technology would make accessible a depth of remarkable new interactive visualization techniques and permanently change my relationship to media consumption. Today, the virtual reality market is slowly but steadily bringing to life the fantasies of decades of science fiction writers, and even advancing into territory they never predicted.
Virtual reality is the simulation of an alternate 3D space that a user can observe and interact with through various techniques. I was already aware of this concept when I first ordered a Google Cardboard viewer online, but it wasn’t until I experienced the low-budget magic myself that I understood what all the fuss was about. Using the HD display and precise gyroscopic sensors that come standard in most smartphones, Google Cardboard displays a stereoscopic image to each eye, tracking the orientation of the user’s head to offer a full 360° view. Even though Google Cardboard’s frame rate, field of view, and resolution aren’t very high, its minimal latency and accurate tracking are sufficient enough for the compelling illusion of existing in a different location.
Virtual reality was only a passing novelty at this time in my life. On occasion, I’d take my Cardboard off the shelf to watch a 3D Youtube video or look around a 360° photosphere. When I had friends or family over, I’d blow their minds by letting them fly around in the Google Earth app. There were other simple games and experiences available, but they weren’t worth wearing an uncomfortable cardboard box on my face for 30 minutes. For me, virtual reality was not yet suitable as a daily or even weekly activity.
Over the next few years, I got intermittent glimpses at the progress of commercial virtual reality technology. I first discovered the fast-paced rhythm game BeatSaber on PlayStation VR at a Sony pop-up event. I got the thrill of playing Fruit Ninja on the Oculus Rift at a mall in a Microsoft store. It wasn’t until 2019 however, when my friend let me use his Oculus Quest, that I became completely sold on virtual reality. Released in May at only $399, the Oculus Quest is Facebook’s wildly successful debut into the standalone virtual reality market. The Quest performs nearly as well as thousand dollar virtual reality rigs but doesn’t rely on cables, external sensors, or a pricey gaming computer. I quickly picked one up for myself and things haven't been the same since.
One major step forwards from Google Cardboard to the Oculus Quest is the increased “degrees of freedom” allowed. With the cardboard’s 3DOF system, a user can rotate their heads in any direction, but their viewpoint is limited to a fixed point in space. The Oculus Quest’s 6DOF system allows the user not only to face any direction, but also to move themselves to any position in the virtual world. In this way, the Oculus Quest’s advanced sensors and display allow a user to navigate virtual reality in the same way as actual reality, and at a quality that makes it easy to forget you're even wearing a headset. Unlike the Google Cardboard, the Oculus Quest’s comfort and fidelity make long virtual reality sessions an exciting possibility. I now play BeatSaber several hours a week on average, supplementing or replacing less engaging aerobic exercises in my workout routine.
One of my most memorable experiences with the Oculus Quest is playing with the “Mission: ISS” app. In this educational simulation, I floated around a realistic model of the interior of the International Space Station, learning to navigate the zero-gravity environment by pulling myself forwards using handles set along the walls. I pointed at and selected various equipment onboard to view video clips of NASA astronauts explaining their purpose. The full immersion made possible by a 6DOF system allowed for an edutainment experience not possible through photographs or videos. Similar apps for the Anne Frank House, art museums, and other destinations prove that virtual reality has unique advantages as a tool for interactive visualization that can’t be replicated with traditional media.
Consuming virtual reality content is a far more active experience than traditional media. Multiplayer online games in particular have made a big impression on me. Until the Oculus Quest, I’ve never been the type to make friends with random online players. Playing a first-person shooter, for example, feels much more personal when you're physically in the same space as your teammates and you can communicate using your hands and body gestures. I also like to spend time in social apps just meeting new people, watching movies together, and playing charades or board games.
While virtual reality has come a long way already, the technology is still in its infancy. In the coming decade, virtual reality will likely become more accessible and mainstream. Fidelity and field of view will continue to improve, reducing the eye strain and motion sickness that affect some players. Features such as mixed reality, eye tracking, finger tracking, and haptic feedback will make the experience even more indistinguishable from reality. I am very excited to see what Hollywood and the news media will do when the technology to record 6DOF 3D videos matures. In the long-term, brain-computer interfaces may potentially make even bigger steps forward. Only time will tell exactly how virtual reality will change society, but virtual classrooms, business meetings, and social spaces have already begun their influence on our culture and I don’t expect them to slow down any time soon.
My personal virtual reality journey is just one of many that will follow. Virtual reality’s ever-widening range of applications have totally captured my interest. Commercial devices are already making innovative new data visualization, business, and entertainment techniques possible, and new unexpected uses will continue to emerge as the technology evolves. I look forward to the changes that virtual reality will make for the field of interactive visualization, and in my relationship to actual reality.
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