Virtual Reality technology is coming along in leaps and bounds. We tried something similar last year, then at the Drones Expo, the AR/VR Create event, and MoJoCon, before finally we took it away to give it an extended road test. Having seen the reaction of people at various tech related conferences we wanted to see what the reaction was among the wider population.
To get as far away from large urban areas we took it to a small gaeltacht (Irish speaking) island off the south west coast of Ireland. Here we set it up and installed the necessary details, a not completely straight forward process, but we found a suitable 13 year old to walk it through the various downloads and permission settings to get it to work.
Samsung supplied us with a Galaxy S7 edge to power the Gear VR headset. The pictures taken on the phone look pretty sumptuous too (we may review the photographic ability of the phone in a subsequent post, but first impressions suggest that they can capture some quite high quality images).
We demoed the free to play games including underwater and spaceship pilot games. There are many more, some free, some pay to play, but the underwater environments worked best for our trials. We wanted to discover the reactions of the very young (4 and upward), the older (over 60) and also those people that would not normally be attending tech conventions (farmers, sailors, surfers, kayakers and generally as wide a range of adults as possible).
When children put it on, the engagement was instant. The ‘wows’ and exclamations came immediately. They were soon looking behind, under, around, trying to swim towards the turtles, dolphins, manatees and other undersea creatures. The shark cage for viewing the great whites was also a big hit. It was also very interesting to see the impact on those adults who were verbally negative about trying it, but then instantly positive when they actually had their turn and tried it out for themselves. Quickly the headset was passed around the pub on a weekend night to enable as many people as possible to try it out.
Overall we may well have reached a tipping point in terms of the ability of the hardware to deliver a believable, not too disorientating experience. Meanwhile developers and gaming companies are frantically building the games and immersive experiences to ensure that potentially for Christmas VR headsets are an affordable platform to play and watch them.
There are still some challenges. One user followed the directions to use the VR experience to watch Netflix, but found that every time he took off the headset to drink or eat something the whole program had reset. Similarly kids were keen to show other people what they were seeing, but in taking off the headset it reset back to the starting point. When you spend a longer time in the environments it can be quite jarring when you take it off and suddenly return to reality.
We may have reached the point where the matrix starts to offer a strong and compelling alternative to our everyday experiences. There are some massive potential benefits to using VR, and the technology is delivering a much better experience, the challenge could well be how we manage our life / screen time balance.