In one way or another, humanity has a tendency to want to escape reality in one way or another. Whether it be something as simple and traditional as a book or a movie, a theater play or a computer game, we like entertainment and we like to suspend reality for just a little while and be entertained in a different one.
With virtual reality (VR), the step into this other world is more extreme than others. Whereas with a book, a movie and a computer game, we are here physically, looking in, with VR we complete immerse ourselves in this alternative universe, effectively blocking out reality.
Although some may question the need to escape reality to such an extreme, others embrace it. The Oculus Rift that just launched as well as the HTC Vive and the upcoming Playstation VR system are all testaments to this desire. Of course, if you’ve paid attention at all, you also know that escaping reality with any of these solutions is going to cost you. The Oculus Rift and a computer good enough to give you a good experience easily comes in at the $1,500 mark.
For those that may not wish to spend that much to escape reality, much less wait until the latter half of the year to actually do it, the Gear VR may be an option. The Gear VR, made by Samsung and powered by Oculus, uses a different approach. Instead of providing you with a headset that contains the screens, sensors and all that you, the Gear VR only comes with the headset, sensors, lenses and straps to mount it on your head. The screen is provided by a compatible Samsung smartphone. In essence, the phone takes the place of the computer for processing and also becomes the display for your headset by being mounted on the headset itself.
I had not planned on getting a Gear VR. In fact, I had little interest in getting one. Until my phone died and I found myself pre-ordering a Samsung Galaxy S7. A perk for those that pre-ordered was the inclusion of a free Gear VR headset. Six weeks later it arrived on our front porch.
I’m not going to detail all the stuff that came in the box or bore you with the setup process that you ultimately could care less about unless you actually buy one yourself (and if you do, plenty of other sites and give you recommendations on how to make it as smooth as possible). Instead, I want to focus on the experience. The question with the Gear VR for me was simple: is the VR experience immersive enough to make it feel real or is it a poor substitute for the fancy Oculus product?
My encounter with VR started with Ocean Rift, an underwater safari of sorts that allows you to meet dolphins, turtles, sharks and so on. I gave the dolphin encounter a go. Suddenly, I found myself in the middle of the ocean. If I looked up, I could see the surface. Looking down, I saw the dark depths of the ocean. Around me swam two dolpins gracefully, circling around me while checking me out. Everywhere I looked, there was ocean. I felt like a scuba diver.
Next, I visited the Jurassic Park app and found myself standing next to a sleeping dinosaur. Suddenly, it wakes up, stretches its long neck up into the sky before getting up on its legs. It checks me out, sniffing first, then showing its eye looking straight at me, just inches away. All the while, I can hear its breathing through my headphones (turning my head also changes the direction of the sound, making the experience even more immersive). Around me is the jungle habitat of this animal with all the sights and sounds you can expect from a Jurassic Park experience. Over to my left is my jeep that I actually wish I could get drive to put a little bit of distance between myself and the animal in front of me.
Milk VR is my next stop. This app contains VR videos that allows you to be inside a video and see everything around you. First, I find myself on Mars with a demo of The Martian VR experience that’s coming to the Oculus device. I’m slowly moving over the surface of the red planet, and I’m looking around at rocks and debris from the storm that left the hero of the movie behind.
After Mars, I decided to hitch a ride with the Blue Angels. Starting on a runway with three other planes around me, I see the pilot in front of me and a passenger/co-pilot behind me (I assume passenger because he’s got an iPhone up snapping pictures the whole time). We accelerate down the runway and take off in perfect formation. I crane my neck all around and I see the other plans close together, just feet away from where I am. They commander initiates a perfect loop and then a flyby of the airport, all in perfect formation.
Finally, Netflix. Oh, yes, you’d think that watching Netflix in VR doesn’t really serve a purpose. Well, you’d be wrong. When you enter Netflix on the Gear VR, you are transported from your living room to a fancy resort in the mountains. High ceilings, large windows and a generally cozy atmosphere. In front of you is a huge video screen. It’s the equivalent of sitting in front of an 80″ screen, I imagine. The Netflix app is controlled just the way it normally would be and you watch your shows on the virtual screen in your virtual living room.
All of the above, I experience in about half an hour. It might not seem much but its plenty for me to say that the experience is definitely sufficient to transport me to another world (even though there are some limitations with the Gear VR which are evident when you use it). If you have an compatible Samsung smartphone and $100 to spend, it’s worth it just to get a feel for what it’s like.
Although I have much to explore yet on the VR side of things, experiencing all of this made me think about the future of entertainment. There’s already a VR experience for The Martian being developed that will put you right there in the story. Could it be that our future involves VR experiences of the movies we watch and the books we read? I would love to, for example, to explore some of the locations in the Star Wars universe or Lord of the Rings. VR promos for books could be an interesting way for a reader to explore the universe of a book you read. In fact, some of the stories I myself write I would love to be able to build and just visit on my own, for my own inspiration.
I’m sure the future holds VR invading our worlds more and more but the high quality experience offered by Oculus and HTC and even Steam is still too expensive. Give it a few years and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see it more common than it is today.
What are your thoughts on VR? Have you tried it? Did you like it? Did it make you sick? What place does it have among our choices of escaping reality?