Competing Virtual Realities

Even though my generation is still trying to shake off hazy recollections of The Lawnmower Man, watching the contemporary re-imaginations of virtual reality is pretty exciting stuff. Yesterday, Ars Technica had a couple of great pieces that looked at competing technologies, which brought me back to a vicarious experience at South by Southwest

Despite my best effort to get into the Oculus Rift / Game of Thrones exhibit at SXSWi, I was thwarted by a long, unmoving line (winter is coming faster than that line was moving…). Fortunately, Wired‘s Laura Hudson got through and her piece “How It Felt to Experience Game of Thrones Through an Oculus Rift” makes for a great read. The following bit really jumped out at me:

I’ve learned how to differentiate between the fear of heights you can ignore as irrational, and the kind of fear that can save your life. But as much as I understood, intellectually, that the simulation was entirely fabricated, every reaction in my body and my brain told me I was in real danger, and I had to act.

Sam Machkovech’s piece at Ars yesterday, “Oculus Rift ‘DK2’ eyes-on: Finally, VR without the Ocu-latency” was interesting to me largely in terms of the issue of latency. I suspect latency might not be a big deal in environments that inspire awe and wonder; you likely will want to take the time to soak it all in. In faster moving environments (such as games and online games), latency kills the experience (one of my ideas while playing World of Warcraft was that there should be a boss called “Major Lag” who would cause the raid to feel as though they were experience latency or disconnects; the /ragequits would have been hilarious…but I digress). Machkovech notes that with the latest prototype

Whatever lag I sensed between my real movements and in-game movements was negligible—that’s no understatement, as I’m a baby when it comes to VR lag. The 1920×1080 panel, split between two eyes, refreshed at something that resembled 60 fps.

As interesting was Sony’s first look at its Virtual Reality headset, dubbed Project Morpheus. Kyle Orland, in his “Project Morpheus impressions: Sony proves it’s serious about virtual reality,” asserts that Sony “…it even surpasses the previous best-in-class Oculus Rift in some ways.” Strong words. Orland hit on another, larger challenge and opportunity for virtual reality:

…it was probably the most striking moment of virtual reality I’ve yet experienced. That is until the end of the demo, when a violent shark attack shook the cage around me, literally making me jump, The only thing that really took away from the feeling was the fact that the ground beneath me didn’t shake in real life to match the floor of my VR cage. [emphasis mine]

Contrast this with Hudson’s experience:

…this demo added sensory elements like blowing wind and rumbling floors. An HBO representative says other iterations could include the scents of ice and, yes, fire. This isn’t the first time multisensory input has been added to visuals, often in gimmicky ways, but paired with the Rift, it is startlingly effective.

Now, admittedly, having HBO craft an experience around the technology helps. It will be interesting to see who starts looking at and working on the other sensory elements of immersive technology.

That said, I likely will be more than happy with an Oculus Rift or Project Morpheus headset while the other technologies catch up.

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