Movies, fantasy worlds and vivid combat games can come to life with a headset, joy sticks and other neat gizmos.
The world of virtual reality is at everyone’s fingertips.
“With VR, you’re in the story,” says Jonny Ahdout, Director of Development at WITHIN, a story-based VR company in Los Angeles. “Our bodies interact with [VR] the same way they interact with the real world…but you’re not limited to the rules of the real world.”
Virtual reality builds an entirely new world for users. Storytellers at The Virtual Reality Company use AR to introduce people to characters that will later star in virtual reality experiences like their popular Follow Me Dragon.
But the applications of virtual reality can go further than games of fantasy. They can help people cope with post-traumatic stress, assist with job training and help scientists visualize data. Skip Rizzo, Director for Medical Virtual Reality at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies.
“Gaming and cinema have been driving the field but the big beneficiaries are people like myself, who are building healthcare applications,” Rizzo said.
Medical applications include using VR simulations to help patients with PTSD and phobias through exposure therapy or creating environments where people with autism can simulate social interaction. Rizzo explained that using VR is not a substitute for a therapist but rather a tool that therapists can use to better help patients.
“Some people have a negative perception of using technology in healthcare because they think it creates a barrier between you and the patient. I think the exact opposite, VR creates a virtual world that’s completely shared between you and the patient,” he said.
VR, inherent problems
Despite all its promising applications, VR isn’t without problems. A research study from the Leeds University in the U.K. suggests that virtual reality headsets can lead to disorientation and a temporary loss of depth perception. Evidence also suggests that VR can impact social interactions and behavior even after the game is off.
“Virtual social experience[s] are stylized and missing much of the richness of social interaction,” said Professor Jonathan Gratch, Director for Virtual Human Research at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies. Gratch added that the most common effects of VR environments are a decreased sensitivity towards social cues and politeness.
Many VR games, like video games before them, put the player in a first-person shooter scenario where their mission is to kill opponents. While interactive VR shooter games require more physical exertion from players than video games of a similar genre, it is too soon to draw definite conclusions about how this may impact players in real life, said Rizzo. VR has been studied for almost 20 years, there isn’t enough data on real-world users to make a case against violent VR experiences.
“Negative applications of VR aren’t deal-breakers, but they are things to consider,” said Rizzo.
As for the idea that VR is antisocial medium, many feel this stereotype is outdated. According to Ahdout, this misconception stems from images of early headsets that didn’t allow users to fully interact with their digital environments and cut them off completely from the physical world.
“I don’t think VR is something that people will spend hours and hours on being isolated from others. People who would be prone to spending a ton of time of VR are probably already spending a ton of time gaming or watching TV,” Rizzo said.
“You’re a lot less likely to play on a VR device for a prolonged period of time because you’re more drawn to the initial “awe” and “wow factor” of the experience,” said Vahag Byurat, a Software QA Automation Engineer. He recently purchased an Oculus Rift and owns other video game consoles. “It will take time for [VR] to be a super intuitive workflow that you’ll lose yourself for hours in.”
Additionally, Ahdout stressed that one of VR’s greatest uses is to connect and engage people; citing the popularity of multiplayer games, virtual collaborations and other shared experiences. Multiplayer arcades and simulations make it possible for users to communicate and share experiences within a digital world.
“VR lends itself to collaboration, you can share the environment with other people all over the world – London, Hong Kong, L.A – we’d all be in the same virtual environment together,” added Gatenberg.