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Welcome to the future, Sir: At the cusp of virtual reality

Programmers show off their virtual reality experiments at Virtual Reality Hackathon at Gray Area Theater in San Francisco.

Cris Miranda is a believer. “Dude! I feel like I'm living inside of a novel,” says the Bay Area-based podcaster.

“This is the story of humanity for the 21st century. I think VR is going to be huge, and it's gonna define life on planet earth as we know it.”

Credit Jeremy Dalmas
Reporter Jeremy Dalmas fulfills his childhood dream: playing a virtual reality Ghostbusters game. It won Best in Show at the Virtual Reality Hackathon.

Miranda believes in the promise of virtual reality. After decades of hype, 2016 is the year that it breaks into homes around the country. The company Oculus just announced that on March 28th it will release its long awaited head-mounted display. Enthusiasts hope this will be the beginning of consumer-level virtual reality entering homes across the country.

Being able to enter manufactured worlds has inspired the novels like Neuromancer and Snow Crash, and films from the 80’s classic Tron to 2011’s Source Code. But attempts to make a helmet that people use in their homes has never actually become reality. Now big tech companies think that they’ve cracked the code and that we humans are ready for the future.

You can already use something called Google Cardboard to turn your android phone into a low-tech head-mounted view-screen. (I know. I got one.)

I was itching to know what a future might look like where humans were fully immersed inside of computer worlds. And I knew that Stanford University would have answers. So I went to campus, to what looks like a quintessential boring room: carpeted grey floor, grey walls, low ceiling.

You’re about to take a trip

“Okay! So welcome to the Virtual Human Interaction Lab”

Shawnee Baughman manages the lab. Researchers here have been testing how people respond to virtual reality since 2003, and today I’m the guinea pig. First, she velcros sensors to my ankles; they will track me as I walk. For stereo sound there are two dozen speakers in the room. Baughman straps a small view screen onto my head. This is the main thing that will immerse me in virtual reality; I can’t see anything except what’s on the 3D screen. She tells me when I move my head it will change the view of the virtual world to match.

She boots up the program and … I’m still in the room. Except it’s a digital copy of the room. It’s weird – I feel like I’m still in the room –and I am still in the room – but I also know pretty much anything can happen. And it does

Soon the floor drops out, and I’m flying through outer space. There are giant colorful balls all around me. Baughman explains what’s happening

“Now if you look below you,” she says, “you’ll see the solar system is coming up.”

A cute BB-8-like spaceship flies past. It’s beeping at me. I fly past the sun, and it’s so loud it shakes the room. Then, I slam back to earth. I take off the helmet, and I’m back. This is the weirdest part – to be back in the real world. I feel disoriented. My head hurts a bit, but that might be because the view screen was on too tight.

I did feel like I was in a different place. To be honest though, it didn’t seem that earth-shattering. But maybe that’s the most remarkable thing about it: how naturally I slipped into the virtual world. I didn’t second-guess it. But I might have if I had come in here a few years ago. Baughman explains that a company called Oculus makes this headset I just used.

Credit Jeremy Dalmas
Looking into the test room at Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

”The previous head mounted display was very big; it weighed over three pounds, and it cost about $40,000,” she says. “This machine here is in the hundreds of dollar range. It’s obviously much smaller, it’s lighter, it’s less than a pound.”

Virtual reality is getting smaller, cheaper, better. And interest is exploding right now. Jeremy Bailenson founded this lab, and he’s been a busy, busy man.

“This is a spectacularly busy time. I've been studying VR for 20 years now."

He's seen more change in the past 18 months than in the past 15 years combined. Oculus funded its first prototype off Kickstarter in late 2012. When Facebook bought the company in July 2014 for 2 billion dollars - that was the tipping point.

“Sony, Samsung, Google, Microsoft and the hardware companies are all competing right now, there's this arms race to get the VR in your living room first,” says Bailenson.

It’s all strangely familiar

But, we‘ve been here before. In the 90’s virtual reality was in the news, on magazine covers, and there were countless films about it from Strange Days to The Thirteenth Floor. You could lift a headline from 25 years ago and use it today. Nintendo even made a game system called Virtual Boy in 1995 that flopped and was forgotten. They called it, “The first three dimension, stereo, immersive 32-BIT video game system ever!”

The technology wasn’t there yet. Now virtual reality enthusiasts are hoping for a near future where it is part of everyday life.

“I do think that it's going to have a major impact on the human condition in a way that, say, the printing press did have,” says Bailenson.

For him, virtual reality is a fundamental shift.

“Psychologically, being perceptually immersed inside of a scene is very different from reading it or watching it on TV,” he says.

And he has dozens of published papers that show how effective it can be. In one experiment they had people cut down a tree to see if that would impact their paper use. It did.

“They had to cut down this tree, and when the tree fell, the tree crashed the floor and bounced their legs,” he says. “A really powerful experience. People that do this study, they call me months later and they say, 'Jeremy, every time I walk the toilet paper aisles, I think about your experiment.’”

Experiments like that show how a virtual experience can influence behavior in the non-computer world. In another experiment, they brought in 2nd graders, had them go to a virtual Sea World.

Bailenson says a week later, “50% of them had formed false memories. Meaning they believe that they had actually gone to sea world and swam with whales. For kids now, the technology is good enough to blur that distinction. We like to say the brain is not yet evolved to differentiate between a compelling perceptual Virtual Experience from an actual one.”

How long will it be before the technology gets advanced enough that adults can’t remember whether an experience was in the virtual or non-virtual world? It’s thrilling… but scary. Think of the plot of the Matrix: humanity enslaved in a virtual world without knowing it. But Bailenson has more down-to-earth concerns.

“What if online gambling feels like you're in Las Vegas?” he asks. “What if ever video game that you're playing you're feeling blood splatter on you, and you're walking among the bodies. I don't see VR as a ten-hour-a-day type of technology. These helmets are going to be everywhere. My job is to create content that can be used for social good.”

So what social good can virtual reality do?

I’m in a former movie theater in the middle of San Francisco’s Mission District. The space is filled with virtual reality enthusiasts. Two dozen teams have 36 hours to cobble together programs that test the waters of what consumer-level virtual reality can do. The obvious first thing is video games. But the most interesting possibilities are the everyday applications.

Credit Jeremy Dalmas
Virtual Reality Hackathon at Gray Area Theater in San Francisco. Dozens of virtual reality enthusiasts had 36-hours to design programs to test the limits of what the technology can do.

One group here is developing a training program for how to put on protective clothing for healthcare workers fighting Ebola. Another group is making a game that helps patients with physical therapy. The army, as a matter of fact, is already using virtual reality to help soldiers with PTSD.

One of the health care app judges, Nancy Hall explains:

“They’re actually taking the soldiers virtually back into a war zone and teaching them how to deal with that stress,” she says. “You get to experience it virtually and then learn how to manage it differently.”

There are people here working on programs to do product design within virtual reality, browse the web in virtual reality, and there is even a software engineer from the Monterey Bay Aquarium who is working on making a 3D version of the Monterey Bay for teaching and research.

The most vocal VR evangelist here is Cris Miranda. He hosts a podcast called EnterVR.

“Every single life of human life that we know right now can be touched by VR, can be converged through VR,” he says. “We talk about medicine. We talk about architecture. We're talking about education, tourism, sex, gaming, entertainment. I mean every aspect of reality can be transported to VR. And in that sense, yes, we can make reality even better.”

Miranda calls virtual reality “the final platform.”

He says, “It will change what it means to be a human. Because eventually VR will live inside our brains, and we all will transcend through this meta-verse, this layer of information on top of what we already see.”

That sounds so different than right now.

“Welcome to the future, sir!”

Portable communicators were around in science fiction for decades before cell phones became a mundane part of life. But so were flying cars and I’m still hanging around BART stations. Right now virtual reality is all promise. The most common issue that people I talked to seem to have with it is that they want to spend more time away from video screens and computers – not go inside of them.

But there’s a certain itch about it that doesn’t seem like it’s going away.

This piece first aired on January 26th 2015.

Crosscurrents technology