Virtual Reality: A Primer

Over the course of the past five years the tech industry has seen unprecedented and rapid growth in the area of virtual reality. While this is not the tech industry’s first foray into the realm of virtual reality, it is by far the most successful attempt that has been made for a number of reasons. Numerous HMDs (head mounted displays) were developed in the 1990s for commercial use. The most well-known and infamous example of this was gaming giant Nintendo’s Virtual Boy. The Virtual Boy is infamously remembered as the biggest failure in the company’s history, and was even named in Time magazines’ top fifty worst inventions of all time. Part of the reason for its failure was the due to the technical limitations of the time. It could only project flat two-dimensional images and in only one color. This was nowhere near detailed enough to evoke the sense of presence required for an effective virtual reality experience. In 2012 Oculus revived the VR industry with its landmark Kickstarter campaign. The goal of the Oculus Rift was not to be a commercial success but instead to be, as Palmer Luckey CEO of Oculus put it, the Model T of virtual reality. Something affordable that people will use and can sustain growth. Through their crowdfunding campaign Oculus not only acquired funding, but demonstrated to other major tech companies that there was enough consumer interest in virtual reality that designing their own products would be a good idea. This has created an explosion of innovation at both the hardware and software level resulting in significantly improved products for the consumer.

VR is an experience unlike any other and provides an undeniable realism that is revolutionary. It is an experience that can only be properly explained by experiencing it firsthand. Having owned one of these devices myself, I can confirm there are simply no words that can accurately describe the sensation of being in the Rift. This experience is what is known as “presence” among the virtual reality community. People often mistake their feeling of presence with immersion. Immersion is the sense that you are surrounded by the virtual world, but presence is the feeling that you actually are somewhere else. Presence is critical to creating realistic and compelling experiences within virtual reality and it can only be achieved through the manipulation of our low level perceptual systems. By tricking our unconscious perceptual systems, our brain interprets the world we are perceiving as though it were reality. Presence, however, is not an easy thing to produce. It requires many different technical aspects of the Rift to be operating at optimal levels simultaneously. When not all aspects of the technology are working together properly, the user starts to feel disconnected from the reality in an undefinable way. For example, if your body perceives yourself to be running at a decent pace and you all of a sudden stop instantaneously your body experiences this unnatural occurrence as though it had actually been moving. Motion sickness is one common possible result from your body’s perception of reality being broken. As it exists currently the technology is nowhere near perfect, but even with just the significant improvements seen in the past half a decade, we have an incredibly powerful tool that  can be used to create all kinds of unique experiences.

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