The Finite Infinity of Virtual Reality
November 21, 2016 / Jongjin Park
Computers, social media sites, smartphones, tablets, smartwatches. The advancement of technology has been growing more and more with the creations of more and more technology being used by more and more people. The question Silicon Valley faces is, “What’s next?” For Oculus and Mark Zuckerberg, the answer is simple: virtual reality (and maybe artificial intelligence afterwards).
The goal of virtual reality is simple: to immerse you in a different world. When you put on the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive, you are to enter and experience another world that you are not presently experiencing physically. This virtual reality technology is planning to be used in many ways. In terms of Oculus, they’ll start developing the immersive gaming experience then move on to watching movies, being in concerts, enjoying a courtside seat at a basketball game, consulting a doctor or a teacher, talking with your friends as if they were next to you, and more with the convenience of not leaving your seat at home.
There are critics of the new technology for the reason that the simulation is too immersive. They’re scared for the world to reach a Matrix-like world. But I have a different concern. It’s that VR goggles outright blatantly fail to do the one thing they promise to do: immersion.
Zuckerberg says, “People who try it say it's different from anything they've ever experienced in their lives.” and that, “Oculus's mission is to enable you to experience the impossible.” This is what I find extremely flawed about our efforts to achieve virtual reality. “Immersion,” implies a sense of possibilities, not impossibilities. It conveys a feeling of reality in an unreal world. This might sound silly since the entire point of VR is to create a new fantasy divorced from the physical world; that’s the “virtual” part. What also needs to remain is the “reality” part of “virtual reality.” The VR goggles, though extremely unique and cool, doesn’t convey this sense of reality.
I have had the opportunity to try on Oculus Rift VR goggles at my visit to Best Buy. As soon as I put on those goggles, my body disappeared and so did the rest of the world. I, ironically, felt isolated from the real world, instead of entering a new one. Sure, my visual senses were replaced by something that was visually spectacular. You can say it’s a good replacement for TV when playing games, but even so, virtual reality remains something that’s extremely antisocial and void of multitasking.
When we watch a basketball game, we also want to be able to snap a picture. When we watch TV, we also want to be able to tweet. When we work on our computer, we also want to be able to grab a drink. Being under VR goggles prevents a person from doing so.
Concerning movies, there’s a quote from Shadows of the Vampire, in which a character says,
If it’s not in the frame, it doesn’t exist!
It’s a quote many filmmakers put in mind when they make films. But our efforts and feelings of need to make movies available for virtual reality makes this idea of “in the frame,” null and void. What will it mean to watch a movie where you feel omniscient? What will be the movie-going experience in which, you know who’s hiding behind the corner, in which you won’t be scared at a jump-scare, or in which you won’t feel claustrophobic even though you’re supposed to.
Jeremy Bailenson, the director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, a research center for virtual reality experiences, said that, “Immersion comes at a cost. It takes you out of your environment, it’s perceptually taxing at times, and it’s not something that we can use the way we use other media, for hours and hours and hours a day.” It’s for this reason that they don’t put someone under VR goggles for longer than 20 minutes.
Farhad Manjoo, writer for New York Times said, “V.R. is a prison of fantastical sights and sounds and one that is at moments irresistibly exciting, but it’s a prison nevertheless. And before long, it will leave you yearning for escape.” In a paradoxical way, the intensity of V.R. tends to limit its integration into your daily life, which, frankly, is the primary thing Mark Zuckerberg hopes to achieve through VR technology.
I’m still extremely hopeful about the future of virtual reality. Even though it faces a major problem currently, as Mark Zuckerberg puts it, “Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones.” HTC and Oculus both plan to add more parts of your body for simulation and full immersion. And I don’t doubt that virtual reality will continue to be developed and improved, but there’s something we should always keep in mind when we think of the word, “immersion.” It doesn’t mean we’re able to see a 360-degree view from anywhere; we already can. It means every view from every angle in those 360 degrees needs to feel real.
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