A visitor plays using a Virtual Reality (VR) headset during the 'Laval Virtual' virtual reality. AFP PHOTO / DAMIEN MEYER/Getty Images
Virtual reality (VR) was everywhere at last week’s South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas. I tried several different VR systems, and they rarely resembled “reality.” Most put you inside a cartoon-like game world. Fun, but not The Matrix.
NASA’s VR demo took visitors to Mars, standing next to the Curiosity Rover. That was cool too, but still nothing like the reality we normally inhabit.
One VR experience that I discovered by accident was very different, though. You could even call it mind-blowing… almost literally.
As I walked from one session to another, I noticed a sign saying “VR Chat”—that was new to me, so I asked how it worked.
The man explained they were from an adult entertainment company. Yes, one of those. They had developed a VR technology for live, interactive adult (ahem) “experiences.”
Realizing their technology could also have G-rated uses, they were at SXSW seeking corporate partners. He asked if I would like a demo.
“Sure,” I said… and that’s when it got weird.
Demo Goes South
They had me sit in a nice, plush armchair and helped me put on a VR visor and a headset with microphone.
Okay, I thought, so a VR chat is probably like a Skype video call, just bigger.
Only that it was nothing at all like Skype.
When the visor came on, I was suddenly sitting in a small, ordinary living room. A real-life living room, not CGI as in the demos I’d seen before. A young woman (also very much not CGI) dressed in shorts and a sweatshirt stood in front of me.
She looked straight at me and said “Hi there!”
“Hi,” I replied. It really felt like I was in the room with her.
We chatted for a minute. Then I realized that when I turned my head, I had a full 360-degree view of the room. I could look up at the ceiling and down at the carpet. I was there—at least visually.
When I looked forward again, I noticed that the woman had moved closer to me.
Like, awkwardly close.
In fact, she was on her knees in front of my chair.
It was bizarre: I knew she wasn’t physically there. She couldn’t touch me, but I would have sworn I could feel her hands on my legs. It was that real.
I didn’t know how far this would go—nor did I want to find out—so I pulled off the visor and thanked them. Then I rushed to the nearest fountain for some cold water.
Unlike the previous VR demos I’d seen, the reality I visited from that chair didn’t feel “virtual” at all. My brain processed it as a real, physical presence. It made my body react as if I were there and even filled in gaps, like the hands my other senses said were touching me.
The company was right: This technology has many potential applications. It would work anywhere you can place the VR camera:
- A college professor could deliver a lecture to thousands of students at once, all “sitting” in one small classroom.
- Concert promoters could sell an unlimited number of front-row virtual seats.
- A surgeon could bring a far-away specialist into the operating room for consultation.
Those are just my quick ideas and I’ve written about others before. You can probably think of more.
VR chat does have limitations (at least for now), but it proved that we don’t need whole new worlds for VR to be useful. It can show us the world we already have, minus the limitations of physical distance.
At some point—maybe soon—I think we’ll see a VR chat function built into Facebook. Zuckerberg will supply the connection, and we will supply the content, just by talking to each other remotely, but “face to face.”
The cameras and headsets will be expensive at first, but as with every new technology, prices will drop over time.
VR will change daily life as much as the smartphone has, if not more. It won’t be all good, either—but it’s going to happen, and nothing we can do will stop it.
For now, no one knows how that new world will work.
We’re going to find out soon.