For decades, countless science fiction authors and screenwriters have spun tales about the perils of scientific advancement. Among such doom and gloom stories, one theme seems to have become more prominent of late –as if it were sounding out an urgent warning — a society where reality has been supplanted by a virtual world.
In the science fiction film Surrogate, the folks live out most of their lives (or fantasies) through physical avatars or surrogates, without once having to leave their beds.
Considering how many people in our society live vicariously through their characters in online video games such as World of Warcraft, this dystopian future seems less far-fetched than most people would like to believe.
Recently, while attending a car show in Singapore, I had a chance to test out just how immersive virtual reality (VR) can get.
While queueing up for my turn at the Samsung Gear VR booth, I thought about how silly it must seem for the observers.
These guys, with their bizarre gigantic black headsets, were turning their heads in different directions, even going so far as to twist and turn their bodies (one lady even shifted her body so far to the extreme left that it nearly tore out the power cable).
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But it was clear that many were enamoured with the device, with many of the participants spending at least 15 minutes with it.
When it came to my turn, I was determined to remain composed and not be carried away.
Boy, was I wrong. Upon strapping it on, the real world around me faded into nothingness. Just a second ago, I was in a car show, now I inhabited whatever world the device assigned to me.
In one scenario, I was a skier, skiing and jumping across treacherous snowy slopes and terrains, with my fellow skiers cheering me on. Being the techie that I am, I moved my head all around, trying to spot flaws in the video that would blemish the experience.
But it was seamless, there were no lags or glitches. Everywhere my head turned, I would spot something new; mountains in the distance, my ski poles scraping up the snow. The environment seemed so palpable that I almost felt a chill as I skimmed down the slope at high speed, the mountainous winds rushing against me.
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In another scenario, I was a lone rider on a roller coaster. Forget those 4D rides you see at theme parks; while the VR device doesn’t provide you with those rocking seats, this virtual ride is a lot scarier. Why? There is no way to avert your eyes from the screen (unless you close them, of course). Also, did I mention that the screen is only about an inch from your face?
I will be honest, when the roller coaster went downhill —the rational mind gave in to the illusion— I definitely went a little weak in the knees.
Thankfully, the third scenario was a lot less frightening. Basically, you are situated about 3 metres high up amongst a crowd in a concert venue. Like the other scenarios, you have a 360-degree view on your area.
Mechanisms and limitations
So how it works is that you attach your smartphone to the googles, then you open up the VR app. With the googles strapped to your head, there’s obviously no way to manipulate the touchscreen. So, the only way you access different features in the VR app is by tilting your head in the right direction.
In Samsung VR Gear’s case, to enter a different scenario, you need to tilt your head all the way down and focus at a little circle. This will then take you back to the main menu or to different scenario. To ensure that image is focussed, you adjust a dial at the top.
There definitely are limitations to the VR device. For example, although the video was in a high definition 1080p, having it placed right so close to your eyes exposed some unsightly pixels. There is also a lack of interactivity at this stage, as it places you in the position of a passive viewer.
But think of it this way: This is just the first wave of the new generation of VR devices. Previous iterations such as the Nintendo Virtual Boy were horribly inadequate with its rudimentary 2D graphics.
Smartphones with 4K resolutions have already entered the markets and will soon become mainstream. Technology may soon advance to the point where the resolution of the virtual reality will become indistinguishable from the “resolution” of real life.
No doubt, other developers will be finding ways to incorporate other technology to make the VR experience more immersive. Just imagine – watching an F1 race with a 360 degree of the driver’s perspective, scale Mount Everest from the comfort of your home, the possibilities are endless.
Now the question is—will mainstream users warm up to this technology or will it end up like all the other fads?
We will know in due time. But my bet is on the former.
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