by Jennifer K. Bauer
Take a trip into virtual reality. For decades science fiction and tech experts forecasted virtual reality was on the horizon. It has finally arrived, for better or worse, in the form of mainstream headsets that transport the viewer to real or imagined locales.
I tried out two of these sets, the Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard, and came to the conclusion that if widely adopted, virtual reality has the potential to change everything, again.
Taking virtual reality for a test drive
Samsung partnered with the VR innovator Oculus to create the Samsung Gear VR that pairs with a Samsung smartphone. Inland Cellular began selling the devices in January for $99.99. Slip your phone into the lightweight, comfortable headset and it automatically loads the Oculus app giving you access to hundreds of pre-loaded movies, videos and games.
I chose to go for a ride in a real fighter jet. As the jet takes off I look up and see the sky through the cockpit’s glass, then look right and see the city falling away below us. I say us because when I physically turn around there is a person in the cockpit behind me filming video with a smartphone, the jet’s exhaust trailing away behind him. The video is not the best quality but my brain is definitely tricked into thinking I am there because everywhere I turn the environment changes around me. Oculus developers call this belief “presence.”
There are numerous other experiences to chose – ride on a speeder in “Star Wars,” float around in space, go to a movie. You can get a controller to use with the device to play games.
Similar things are available with the lower grade Google Cardboard. Available online for $20, it’s a do-it-yourself VR kit you assemble yourself. Download the Cardboard app to your phone and slip it into the box and you’re ready to go. Cardboard offers a cheap way to dip your toe in the virtual waters and learn how it works. I let my kids try it and my 12-year-old daughter took a 5-minute tour of the Palace of Versailles four times. She’d like to go to France someday and this is the closest she’s ever been. The prospect of cheap virtual travel is one of the great hopes of the industry.
There are numerous apps you can download for Google Cardboard. I tried “Titans of Space,” which takes
the viewer on an animated condensed tour of the solar system. Be warned, virtual reality will quickly drain your phone’s battery.
Using these products I was oblivious to my real surroundings and truly did have the sense I was somewhere else and not sitting in an office chair with my phone 2 inches or less from my eyes, which is something that really disturbs me about VR. The Samsung headset comes with a lengthy and alarming disclaimer that warns the user to take a 10 to 15 minute break every 30 minutes, “even if you do not think you need it” and that prolonged use could “negatively impact hand-eye coordination, balance and multitasking ability.”
After using both sets I did feel slightly discombobulated. My eyes felt heavy. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed.
I have conflicting views. On one hand, virtual reality submerges you in fantasy, why would you ever choose to play a video game any other way? There is so much to experience. On the other hand, do we really need the tech devices that consume so much of our attention to become even more isolating and addictive? We are going to find out.