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  • 10.07.15
  • the new magic

A Virtual Certainty

Virtual reality has evolved and reemerged as a new hope for advancing industry, entertainment, education—even the human condition. What you see today is a hint of what’s to come.

A Virtual Certainty

This special report was created by FastCo.Works,
a division of Fast Company, in partnership with MINI.

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HAVE YOU TRIED it yet? You know, virtual reality, or VR, as those in the know say. Right now, lots of people across a variety of industries are lining up to slip on a headset and see the future.

In an era destined to go down as the technology age, VR has even the most jaded techies excited about what is on the way and what is now possible—despite the fact that no one can precisely describe either. Every day or so for the past 18 months, another established engineer or developer has quit his job at a video-game company to join a VR startup, another deep-pocketed venture- capital firm has started an incubator, and another multinational company has breathlessly instructed its biz dev department to back-burner whatever it was grinding on, because this is it—the tech we’ve all waited for, the tech with the power to change everything.

VR is not new. In the early 1980s, a wave of interest in computer experiences like Flight Simulator gave millions a first-person taste of what it’s like to land a jumbo jet. Before that, 3-D movies and stereoscopic photography all attempted to generate an immersive visual experience. Perhaps you encountered a more advanced—but still early—form of the technology in the1990s, in an amusement park (Back to the Future: The Ride, anyone?). You strapped in to what seemed like an ordinary roller-coaster car positioned in front of a huge screen, but when the ride started, you didn’t actually go anywhere. The car may have bounced up and down a bit, but the magic—that feeling of actually traveling through space—was created by the images that flashed on the screen.

That’s still the basic idea behind VR, only now the large screen has been replaced by, in its simplest form, a cardboard cradle that holds your smartphone. The experience is infinitely more immersive than what you probably remember from that amusement-park ride, but it’s only a teaser for what you’ll see over the next six months, when consumer electronics giants Sony, Samsung, and Microsoft join upstarts like Valve, Avegant, Fove, and the leader of the pack, Oculus Rift, in a race to win the eyes and minds of a white-hot industry. How hot? According to a recent SuperData report, VR will engage 11 million consumers by the end of 2016.

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How else do you explain Facebook’s $2 billion purchase of Oculus, a company started by a 19-year-old homeschooled gamer named Palmer Luckey?

What did this kid do to make that kind of money? He took the old VR tech that came before him and made it better: simpler to use, cheaper to produce, and more real to experience. Mark Zuckerberg is more than a decade removed from his days of hacking into the business world from a dorm-room desk. Now he’s the establishment, running a company that’s worth more than Walmart. Facebook didn’t purchase Oculus just because Luckey tapped into something cool. It bought the startup because VR represents something huge.

The Coming Conversions

None of it makes any sense, though, until you slip on a headset. You need to feel the experience for the virtual to become reality.

“People definitely have that moment after they take off the headset and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t build anything any other way,’” says Nonny de la Peña, an eight-year VR veteran and founder of the VR startup Emblematic Group, which is pioneering the field of fully immersive journalism. “I had the same conversion.”

Until that moment, feelings about VR swing from skepticism to excitement. You may dismiss the technology as a fad, a gimmick that consumer electronics companies are desperately grabbing onto in an effort to gin up sales for the holidays. Or perhaps you believe that VR’s only real utility is as a distraction for gamers who spend too many hours slaying zombies.

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But the areas that are actively exploring applications of VR—education, health care, journalism, and professional training, to name but a few—are much more grounded than that. Gaming and Hollywood-style entertainment may be the examples you’ll see first, because that’s where people are expected to show off their imagination. But within 10 years, you’ll probably be using some form of VR to join a virtual meeting, to learn new skills at the office, to choose new furniture for your living room, and to correct everyday medical conditions like a lazy eye. Your kids will take virtual field trips to the ancient pyramids of Egypt. Your favorite NFL quarterback will be better prepared for the big game after hours of practice reps picking apart virtual defenses.

“Soon, customers in all industries will be very used to VR,” says Patrick Dahms, advanced technical artist at the BMW Group Technology Office U.S.A. “It won’t be scary—it will be common, like how we think of our smartphones now.”

Enter The Empathy Machine

The power behind VR’s effectiveness is a bit of a paradox: artificially created scenarios that generate deeply felt human reactions. That’s the reason video-game developers have learned that VR might not be the ideal platform for classic chase-and-shoot games. What’s thrilling escapism on a traditional family-room screen is so terrifyingly real in VR that players are more likely to hide in a virtual corner than engage with the game.

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What VR unlocks instead is a different human skill, one that we don’t talk much about in the digital age: our ability to empathize. When de la Peña’s L.A.–based Emblematic Group created a VR experience using computer animation built around the real audio of 911 calls and witness testimony of the Trayvon Martin shooting, the finished product—“One Dark Night”—was so haunting that viewers shared it more than 1.3 million times online and through social media. It rekindled the national debate on how we process and react to human tragedy.

Other mediums—including books, paintings, film, and music—can inspire empathy. But the advantage that VR holds over its predecessors is an unmatched level of human control. Even if you don’t guide the story you’re experiencing, you have complete control over how you engage with it—where you look, where you walk, what you focus on—so the feelings these situations evoke are much deeper and more profound.

A fine example of this dynamic is the soon-to-be released product Tilt Brush. This VR toolbox, created by San Francisco developers Skillman & Hackett, allows users to paint the space around the—the actual air—in 3-D shapes, lights, and colors created with just a flick of their hands. The emotion it spurs is unmistakable: pure wonder.

Many VR converts describe their first experience as making them feel like a child again. They talk of getting “lost” in a new world, a sensation that isn’t tied to the physical space around them or the electronic gizmos they’re plugged into. Instead, it’s born from the mysterious spaces of the heart and mind.

On The Forefront

An industry that fully understands the power of being able to tap into this elusive realm is marketing and advertising. Mega brands such as HBO and Coca- Cola, which sponsored a VR experience at last year’s FIFA World Cup, are exploring the space with gusto. The potential is clear, especially as traditional models of advertising continue to show signs of being less potent.

“With advertising, people have their barriers up,” says Marc Lengning, global head of brand management for MINI. “That’s why we want to emphasize storytelling over product features. We created two fictional films in VR because we didn’t want to do a commercial. We wanted to explore a technology.”

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VR marketing films are being tested for everything from tourism to fashion. Marriott has created a VR experience, called Teleporter, in which potential clients can get a sense of what it’s like to visit Hawaii. As you walk on a black-sand beach in Maui, you feel the sun on your face, the breeze in your hair, and the mist of the ocean (Marriott actually incorporated those sensory elements). The experience doesn’t replace your interest in real travel—it intensifies it. This approach has the potential to create brand messages that are practically impossible to ignore, because you don’t passively consume them, you live them. “VR advertising is almost a new language,” says Nick DiCarlo, general manager of immersive products and virtual reality at Samsung. “If you think about watching VR advertisements, it’s not three seconds you count as a view. It’s watched for seven minutes.”

On the road to massive scale, the biggest challenge that VR immediately faces is marketing the technology itself. Two major hurdles to adoption—pricing and perception—have already surfaced, even though only a small percentage of the public has actually experienced modern VR.

Early VR experiences—think the amusement-park ride or simulators used in aviation and space exploration—were so expensive to produce that it was impossible for many private companies or consumers to afford them. By comparison, VR is now cheap enough for the masses. The high-end consumer headsets that are hitting the market all cost less than $500, and some, like Google Cardboard, are under $30. If the products prove to be popular—and the answer could come as soon as the 2015 holiday shopping season—competition and market dynamics will drive prices even lower. Mattel is even ready to bring VR to children with a $30 version of its classic View-Master.

With the cost of entry no longer an obstacle, the trickier hurdle is public perception. VR is just a strange idea for some people to embrace—why do virtually what you can do for real? It doesn’t help that some early testers of VR literally got sick while using the technology. The queasiness is brought on by a physical disconnect: The brain is responding to the visual cues of speed and motion, while the body remains almost perfectly still.

The nausea issue seems to have been resolved with higher image resolution—one of several visual “rough edges” that are steadily being sanded and polished by developers to create as flawless an experience as possible.

Then there are the finer points—the art of creating VR as opposed to the science. The real world has repeated visual patterns mixed seamlessly with vast variety. To convey the feel of hiking through a forest, for example, it’s not just a matter of cloning a thousand images of a single tree. If that were the case, your brain would instantly tell you the environment was fake. On a real hike, your mind registers a thousand trees that all look subtly, but unmistakably, unique. Layer on top of that every leaf, every twig, every view from every direction that the user may choose to turn her head, and you get the idea of VR’s tremendously complex computer processing challenge. And that’s just the setting. If you want something to happen to the user within that simulated forest—not to mention give her the ability to leave and enter a cave or castle as well as employ other senses like touch and smell at the same time—well, it’s hard work building a world, especially a virtual one.

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Some very smart minds are receiving generous funding to take on these challenges, and new solutions are being uncovered all the time. But the larger perception problem facing VR on the road to fulfilling its potential is tougher to crack: cynicism. How do you make the jaded believe, the small-minded think big?

Josh Maldonado, founder of the VR education company Discovr, believes that after the allure of newness fades, trust and value must be established the old-fashioned way: by proving that VR does indeed offer a way to meaningfully advance fields beyond what came before it. “Nongaming companies are going to have to prove that this tech is good beyond gaming,” he says.

Maldonado became a believer simply because he saw that kids learned better—and more willingly—when they experienced a history lesson in VR rather than reading about it in a textbook. Suddenly, Ancient Rome came alive for students and was relatable. Now Discovr is working with $100,000 in seed funding from Rothenberg Ventures (through its VR accelerator River, the industry’s first) to test similar discoveries on a larger scale.

“Ultimately, VR is going to become whatever people think it can be,” says Maldonado. “I think it’s a great teaching tool, an aid to learning that’s better than what came before it. You can hate on the idea of a kid staring at a screen, but we did our research, and this is an incredible application of the technology.”

Ubisoft is a traditional video-game developer. But VR has led the maker of the popular first-person shooter Assassin’s Creed to partner with a health care startup called Amblyotech to create a game, Dig Rush, that can resolve lazy eye syndrome. It trains players to see out of both eyes rather than just one, and has proved to be 90% effective in as little as four weeks.

With examples like these, it’s not surprising that developers can hardly hide their enthusiasm. And given the level of talent and investment already rushing into the space, it is hard to imagine how VR will be anything less than a game-changing breakthrough for training and product development. And that’s a completely conservative prediction. VR promises widespread impact, the likes of which we haven’t witnessed since the dawn of the Internet.

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All it takes is slipping on a headset and allowing yourself to imagine the possibilities. What insights might you see that can better a business, save the environment, or solve our energy and food-supply problems? How can empathy help us with race relations, geopolitical dynamics, or gender inequality? How can we better treat phobias, mental disorders, and the social problems that lead to bullying and violence?

The answers suddenly seem more possible with VR— like a puzzle waiting to be solved in a waking dream. All it will take is the right people armed with the right technology and an open mind.

“Personal computing is all about the augmentation of people,” says Blaise Agüera y Arcas, a software expert who specializes in machine learning at Google. “In that way, everything we do now with technology constitutes a kind of magic—magic that empowers individual people to do amazing things.”

Perhaps the lingering problem with VR isn’t the technology at all. Perhaps it’s the oft-derided name, which narrows the perception of what the technology can do. The leading minds in the field are actually trying to aid a phenomenon that we think of quite positively, that we even crave: dreaming, brainstorming, exploring. This space is where possibility becomes true reality.


Bob Der for FastCo.Works
Illustration by Sam Chivers