Image: Fabrice Bourrelly
Should we believe the hype about Virtual Reality?
Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones. The future is coming and we have a chance to build it together.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook post, March 2014
Mark Zuckerberg caused quite a stir when he announced that Facebook was acquiring Oculus VR, the maker of the Oculus Rift headset, which has been designed, according to Oculus.com, “to make it possible to experience anything, anywhere”.
Consumer versions of a machine capable of taking us out of our bodies, and into a world with no limits, are about to be rolled out to the general public. According to evangelists for the new technology, we are standing on the threshold of what may be the very next step in the evolution of humanity.
Putting on virtual reality (VR) goggles is an experience unlike anything you have ever done before. There is nothing else like it, as Zuckerberg describes it:
The incredible thing about the technology is that you feel like you’re actually present in another place, with other people.
Our senses are about to be overwhelmed with a new way to cross distances in an instant, to experience our wildest dreams, and perhaps, gain a radical new perspective on the “real” world.
Computer gaming will be one of the first applications of VR technology, for obvious reasons: gamers are enthusiastic first-adopters, happy to invest in new technology that takes them deeper into the world of gameplay — and VR promises to deliver the most immersive and compelling gaming experience yet.
Zuckerberg is betting on the Oculus Rift being much bigger than a fancy gaming accessory:
After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home.
This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.
. . . One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people.”
But should we believe the hype about VR? What makes Zuckerberg and other enthusiasts so sure it isn’t just another tech fad? And even if it can deliver the immersive experiences it promises, are we ready for the impact?
Some sceptics are concerned that VR will become too seductive. If you thought it was hard to get the kids off the iPad, then imagine what it will be like when they are deep inside a fully realistic and immersive virtual world. And what kind of world will that be?
Most video games are either about killing each other or some other kind of violent act. So all those people who are up in arms about the effect of so much violence on people’s minds will have sleepless nights about the prospect of a (presumably) hugely magnified effect of virtual murder and destruction.
Another objection is that some virtual environments look impressive but they are actually a step backwards in terms of functionality.
For example, Amazon’s 2D shopping environment is more efficient than walking around a bookstore, because we can discover and choose from a wider range of books, much more quickly. So entering a virtual Barnes & Noble might be fun at first, but the novelty would soon wear off and it would get boring to virtually ‘walk’ across the store, and sift through books on the virtual shelves.
So is VR doomed to be just a snazzy playstation console, giving us another depressing view of the world turned to hell, as we endlessly perfect our skills at destruction and murder?
Will a 3D virtual environment ever be more efficient than a 2D browser when it comes to practical tasks like shopping or studying?
Over the last twenty years I’ve spent a lot of time pondering these questions, in the course of helping clients such as Google, Bentley and Thomas Heatherwick to create virtual worlds of their own. I’m an enthusiast but reached conclusions that are different not only to the sceptics, but also to some of the enthusiasts for VR.
To share some of my conclusions, I need to start by examining some of the assumptions we habitually make about virtual reality – and reality itself.
False assumptions about virtual reality
VR sounds an exotic concept, but every day of your life you have a virtual world staring you right in the face: reflected on the surface of your bathroom mirror.
This mundane example encapsulates one of the most fundamental assumptions we make about VR: virtual reality is a mirror of the real world.
When we build a virtual world, our first instinct is to represent something more or less similar to this world, because of the need of a certain familiarity. It is very difficult to think of anything different.
And starting from this assumption, it follows that making virtual reality more ‘realistic’ means making it more like the real world we all inhabit. So we strive to make colours, shadows and textures more convincing. We make objects behave more ‘realistically’ – obeying the laws of gravity, momentum, friction and so on. And we have a quasi obsession about making computer images, for example, that look realistic, or interestingly more “photorealistic”.
But this assumption is actually a huge – and unnecessary – step in a certain direction, that closes down many other possibilities.
For example, in real reality the floor has a reason to be here: to stop us falling through the earth. In architecture, the spatial grammar or language that we are used to “reading” is also here for a reason. A door is clearly here to take us from one space to another space. Windows are here to let light in; the roof, to keep rain out. This language is part of us, it makes our world. So much so that we start reading this language even if the object is void of actual function.
Image: Fabrice Bourrelly
An arch in the middle of the desert is a simple delimitation of space but you would nevertheless be compelled to walk through it because of the signification you attach to it. This meaning of the arch or doorway is something that has been ingrained in us from time immemorial.
The spatial language of the real world is subject to change. For example, very young children are now pinching the images of magazines, expecting them to zoom out. The iPad, just like the smartphone, is having a profound effect on how we perceive the real world. Technology is changing the meaning of space.
But there are limits to the changes we typically experience in real-world space, because of physical constraints – gravity, distance, friction, momentum, and so on. But in Virtual Reality, these contraints no longer apply…
The limitless world of virtual reality
As Jean Cousin explains in his book L’espace Vivant (‘The Living Space’), our experience of space is related to our bodies. Up-down, left-right and front-back are the axes of space — all in relation to the body.
Image: Fabrice Bourrelly
Our familiar rectangular rooms give us a sense of rest because our axes are blocked. But in the case of a corridor, because the forward axis is open and there is a sense of dynamism, we tend to move forward.
In virtual reality, however, we have no body, so the virtual world could be completely different to our familiar world.
Why should the virtual world be a mere copy of our world? If there is no body to fall through the floor, why should there be a floor? If there is no gravity, why have things falling?
Even if we want to have a body, why have a body with legs, if we can just click to go somewhere rather than walk or run there?
So what what should things be if the rules are so different? If there’s no need for roofs or windows or doors, or arms or legs, then what kind of world should we create?
In fact, virtual reality is nothing but a total void of existence! Just an image projected onto your eyes which gives your brain a kind of certitude that it exists.
Because of the law of familiarity, I think it will be difficult for us to stray too far from actual reality—at least to begin with.
(I once put myself in an empty world as an experiment. Looking down into the void below me gave me a queasy feeling. I couldn’t even see my feet dangling. It certainly felt very uncomfortable.)
Perhaps the only thing that is certain in this new world is “presence”.
We are there, or I am there. The I of “I think therefore I am” is there. But the relationship between ourselves and the world has turned inside out: in the real world, the universe exists and we are born inside it, but in the virtual world, we exist first and then the world is born around us.
So we begin to understand the vastness of the subject and the task at hand if we want to define this new world.
Right now we are beginning our exploration, feeling our way forward. I have been further than most, but I’m not at all certain how it will evolve. Scary? Maybe. Exciting? You bet.
Beyond Amazon: the virtual reality store of the future
Let’s step back from the existential brink, to consider one of the most mundane activities we perform online – shopping. We’ll see how questioning our assumptions about VR can lead us to a radically different solution to the problem of finding and selecting what we want from a bewildering array of products.
The received wisdom, even among some VR enthusiasts, is that VR doesn’t have much to offer the shopping experience. While a virtual bookstore may look nice, the argument goes, it’s actually pretty tedious to ‘walk’ across the floor and browse through the virtual shelves. The tech may be state-of-the-art, but the shopping experience has regressed to the pre-internet era.
According to this view, it is much more efficient to use a 2D environment like Amazon.com, which allows us to search a vast catalogue instantly, and flip through multiple books much more quickly than we could using a virtual bookshelf, with the books all spine out.
We can see that this argument is based on some of the false assumptions about VR we have already considered. But because virtual space doesn’t have the same limits as real 3D space, there is no need for a virtual bookstore to look anything like a real bookstore.
In a VR store, we don’t need to travel from one space to go to another space—we can just click, and we’re there! Wasn’t that the exciting thing about the internet in the first place? The hyperlink!
Spaces don’t need to be arranged in a way that we can move through them. Instead, we can have spaces move around us. Do this, and we can transcend not only the limitations of a real world bookstore, but also of the 2D browser that houses an online store such as Amazon.
So what could this look like in (ahem) reality?
Imagine you are sitting at home, having just finished a book by a new author. You enjoyed it, so you are eager to read more of her work. You look down towards the floor at the button between your feet. It changes colour as you fix your gaze on it.
The button says “Begin Session”.
Shafts of light descend through the room, just like in Blade Runner.
You hold up your e-reader, and a cluster of books materialises in the air around you.
Closest to you is the book you’ve just finished, with an arrow pointing to a second book, indicating that this is the sequel. Beyond that, another arrow points to a third book, so you can see that you’ve just finished the first of a trilogy. Hovering in the air around you you see another two series clustered together, as well as several books on their own, indicating that these are standalone works.
It’s tempting to order the second book in the series, but you pause for a moment.
“Timeline,” you say, and watch the cloud of books rearrange itself into a line, with publication dates next to each one. You see in an instant that you’ve just finished one of her early works, which raises a question:
Is this an author whose writing improved over time, or would her fans say that her early works are the best?
Image: Fabrice Bourrelly
As you utter these words, the books change size – the bigger the book, the more copies it has sold. Looking along the timeline, you see the books getting bigger and bigger, which makes it clear that her later works were more popular than the early ones.
“Switch to review score.”
Another change ripples along the timeline, but more subtle this time. Now the book sizes indicate the average review score, and again, you see the books getting bigger as time goes by. You’re starting to think you’d be better off reading one of the later works next.
“Best series?” you ask.
A four-book sequence from the second half of the author’s career pops out of the timeline, surrounded by a selection of quotes from reviewers letting you know this is “her crowning achievement”. You’re tempted to start this series next—but you make one important check first.
Now the original trilogy reappears, with flashing arrows indicating that the two series are linked together – and the later series contains spoilers for the first.
You get the feeling you’ll want to read the whole lot, so you decide to continue with your current series – but this time, with the added confidence of knowing you have a sequence of six great books to look forward to.
The whole process takes less than a minute.
As the book appears on your screen, and the cloud of other books vanishes into the ether, you remember with a smile how much longer it used to take to get the big picture of an author’s career by browsing Amazon on ye olde internet (as you call it).
You had to click back and forward (or open multiple tabs), comparing publication dates, gleaning bits of information from reviewers and (often incomplete) publishers’ descriptions. And yet, once upon a time, Amazon had seemed lightning-fast, compared to the bookstore of your childhood.
If you want to explore further, you could ask for “related authors” – and see the little cluster of the author’s books take its place in a larger galaxy of writers, arranging them chronologically, by taste (“readers who like X also like Y”), or theme (“historical novels with pirates”), or language, or multiple combinations (“historical novels with pirates, in French, latter half of 20th century”).
It boggles the mind to begin to think of what a store the size of Amazon could become in virtual reality. Imagine an overview of the whole of Amazon, with the products laid out like stars in the Milky Way – all able to be sorted, selected and reconfigured in a split-second, by asking a simple question or shifting your gaze.
And there’s no reason why your VR bookstore should look like anyone else’s. Because VR is infinitely flexible, it is infinitely customisable.
When you get bored of the “galaxies of books” effect, you might switch to an “author view” where you find yourself in a room full of authors milling around, whom you can interview about their books.
Or maybe you’d like the old-school atmosphere of a second-hand bookstore – but with a Mary Poppins effect of books flying on and off the shelves with each question you ask.
Or maybe you want to keep things simple, by talking to a virtual librarian, who knows every book you ever read, and makes personal recommendations based on your past history and current mood?
Other applications of VR
It’s easy to see how VR will transform gaming. With other activities, like shopping, it’s harder to get our heads around the possibilities of VR. But I hope my bookstore example has started to open your eyes to the potential of VR to transform our lives — and the difficulty of predicting exactly what form these transformations will take.
But buying things is only a small portion of what we do on the internet. In fact commerce in not even what the internet is about.
For those whose business is to teach, the use of writing, podcasting and video is now standard, isn’t it?
Well, what if there was a way to deliver your message to your audience in an even more compelling way, where they were not only able to see you and feel present with you, but cold also be in the room with you? What if you could deliver your lesson from a Buddhist temple in Thailand? Or in the middle of the Amazon forest? Or sitting right there, at home with you? It wouldn’t be just a background, it would be the actual place you were together in.
What if you wanted to be out in space giving a lecture about the solar system?
Or if you are a creator, a designer, with VR you could put people inside your creations before you make them real. Being an architect myself, I’ve always found this idea very compelling.
From now on, things will never be the same again as we will be building a new world – a sort of physical internet if you will. I believe it is our responsibility to engage and participate in the building of it, to have our say and not just be numbed-out consumers of content leading us to our demise.
What would you like to do with Virtual Reality?
So go ahead, why don’t you sit back one day, and start imagining how your world would be…
If you had to have a VR website one day, what would it look like?
Would you tell a story?
How do you think VR could help you enhance your customers’ experience of buying from you?
Fabrice Bourelly is an artist, architect and Virtual Reality designer who helps innovative companies create virtual worlds. If you found this article worthwhile, you can have more of Fabrice’s thoughts on Virtual Reality delivered to your inbox.