For decades, VR has been sold to us as a mythic escape into a big, open world of synthetic fantasy. In the 1980's, movies like Tron and the Lawnmower Man depicted protagonists exploring vast, action-packed neon landscapes. In the 1990's, Snow Crash and the Matrix described vivid journeys through, again, vast virtual landscapes. This awkwardly dated trope dogs VR to this very day.
This article is to help you get over the crippling mental burden that this past fantasy has installed in your brain. Thankfully, you don't have to take my word for it. New developments in VR, on the high end, are today showing the public the surprising potential of a different kind of VR. And it is much smaller than anyone thought.
In 2013, early Oculus enthusiasts enjoyed the Tuscany demo. This experience places you by a small house in a hilly landscape. Looking around this virtual Tuscany, there's quite a bit more space, psychologically, than is experienced in a typical flatscreen game. People got excited by this big openness which is called "presence" -- the space of bigness. VR took our everyday 3D computer worlds -- our games and movies -- and promised to make them bigger.
That promise is being fulfilled in fits and starts. Gamers ask: when will I be able to run around in my favorite video game and go exploring in VR? Film buffs ask: when will I get to be inside my movie as it's happening? The answer is complicated. Locomotion (walking around in VR) is a complex issue. Channeling attention for cinematic experience is another challenge. Literally thousands of teams are working to solve these problems today, with mixed success.
It's surprising many today -- with all the hype, expectation, and effort towards creating open, large scale VR -- to see the breakout success of a high-end VR that instead deals with the nearby.
In order to explain "VR of the near", I want you to imagine yourself in the middle of World of Warcraft. Stick your arms out in front of you, go ahead - spin around. The near is that space within your hands, close to your body. While this is not the focus of the World of Warcraft universe (all the buildings, towns, villages, other characters, etc are outside of this small space), in the new kinds of experiences that VR is enabling, this small, nearby space is turning out to be significant indeed.
It turns out that, in this near space, VR is basically perfect. You can fully access the space with your body. There are no nausea-inducing camera tricks needed to get around. You don't need to learn any control schemes or computer stuff to get things done. And the richness of what you can do while fully connected to this virtual space is astounding. The major VR makers of today are experimenting. Oculus' Toybox allows you to pull slingshots and play ping-pong. Google's Tilt Brush lets you draw freely in 3D space. Fantastic Contraption challenges gamers to build machines.
There is something different about these VR experiences -- people use verbs to describe them. You light a cigarette lighter, throw a ball. This stands in stark contrast to the conventional, expected VR -- where you're transported to many fabulous nouns. In the VR of the large, you may feel many fabulous emotions. It's only in the VR of the near where you find yourself experiencing new verbs.
There is no stronger testimony to the power of the VR of the near than the breakout success of Job Simulator on the HTC Vive. Only in the VR of the near is a menial job suddenly more exciting than traveling to outer space or swimming with the whales (two cliché fantasies that have been tried over and again in the VR of the large). It's time to question this antiquated VR of the large and far away. At this moment in the VR, it's being beaten time and time again by this better, smaller VR.
Today's home of near VR is the Vive, a headset and motion controllers produced by HTC and Valve Corporation. This product proposes the preposterous: room-scale VR. This idea struck me as crazy. People will empty out a room of their house for VR experiences? Certainly a luxury or science fiction, right? This may be great VR -- after all, the research community has for decades been focusing on smaller, more contained VR spaces using things like the CAVE with great success. But a consumer product? I didn't think it would work.
It turns out I was wrong. Something curious indeed has happened, and that's a strange balance between the capabilities of the Vive, and the amount of space people actually have for a VR session. First, it turns out that a 5 x 6.5 foot (1.5 x 2m) space is plenty adequate for these small VR experiences. And then it turns out that over 81% of Vive customers have at least that much space available. While there is some selection bias here (why would you buy a Vive if you don't have room to set it up?), these statistics indicate this model may be viable.
Everyone remembers that moment in the 3D movie. When a character or object flies out of the screen, right towards your face. You reach out your hand to touch that shimmering imaginary form. This is near space of the VR of the small -- it's sensationally impactful for being so close, and functionally rich when we add the Vive's handheld controllers. Shapes can be known, understood by strolling around them.
After becoming accustomed to these small VR experiences with the Vive, seated VR experiences are starting to lose their luster. The world may appear vast, but I am an invisible ant inside of it -- the world is big, but I am small. By scaling up just enough to accommodate my body, I am suddenly part of the world. The slightly larger, room-space physical requirement meets this slightly smaller virtual space in the middle, at the spot where they match.
This near VR is the winning VR trend of 2016. It's time we put aside the old model of VR for a second, to mythologize and fantasize about the kinds of things we can create and experience in this small VR that's nearby. The technology is ready and here today.