Why is there always something wrong with virtual reality?

This past week I was in Seattle for Seattle Startup Week. It was a great week filled with panels, talks, and events for entrepreneurs from entrepreneurs. A large part of the week was devoted to immersive technology, including virtual reality (VR), augmented reality, and artificial intelligence (AI). I spoke on a few VR panels and demoed rumii at PlutoVR for the Enterprise MR demo night.

I came away from the week invigorated with new ideas for Doghead Simulations. From a business and entrepreneur standpoint, I learned a lot. However, it was not the best week for VR.

I walked away from the week thinking that there is always something wrong with virtual reality. I was hit with statements like:

“Why isn’t it more realistic?”

“It’s not inclusive enough”

“Why would you even bother building that?”

At first, I wasn’t sure how to respond to these statements. Developing for virtual reality is hard. It’s never been done before with the tech that we have now. Investment and hardware only really started to explode last year, yet people not in the space expect perfection overnight. I do enjoy hearing where people think VR should be because it gives us developing its goals to build to. However, I think people are keeping their expectations from letting them experience virtual reality.

Let’s deep dive into why the statements above are the wrong ones and how people should be thinking instead.

“Why isn’t [VR] more realistic?”

scott-webb-vr headset
Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

The power and beauty of virtual reality is that it doesn’t have to look real to feel real. I thought John Gwinner, on Quora, came up with a great explanation for this. He said, “when you see things in a world that move, and…that you can interact with, they WILL seem real. Even if they don’t look real.” He goes on to talk about how we enjoy watching cartoons or anime, those shows don’t display “real” people and things. In virtual reality, we can create whatever we want to see. We can interact with Mickey Mouse or Lego Batman as if they were real people with brains.

Considering an avatar of a person looking pixelated or fully human depends on a few factors. First, we are restrained by the hardware. The HTC Vive in the market right now is considered the most high-end HMD people can buy. It has 1080×1200 resolution in each eye. It’s hard to read text and at first, you may notice how digital everything looks but, soon your eyes adjust.

Developers have to design games with 60 to 90fps so people don’t get dizzy or feel sick in the experience. This requires a computer with enough RAM, a good graphics card, and processor to handle it.

Mostly, it takes a lot of time and money to create realistic experiences, whether in VR out of it. A VR experience requires a developer with Unity or Unreal chops, 3D artists that can render objects to look realistic without taking up a huge amount of memory, and audio engineers that understand how to design experiences for positional audio. None of these jobs come cheaply.

“It’s not inclusive enough”

Speaking on Inclusion and Diversity in VR and AI

This statement was not said directly to me but it came out of a panel I was on in Seattle Startup Week. The audience wanted VR to be a perfect world with avatars that looked exactly how they wanted them to look and interactions monitored by artificial intelligence. I think that’s fine but it’s undercutting what virtual reality really brings to the table.

VR isn’t here to make people feel safe. It’s here to make people experience things that are unsafe in a protective environment. We can experience what it’s like to be a soldier fighting terrorism in the middle east. We can experience climbing Mt. Everest or what it takes to be a firefighter. I wrote before how psychologists use VR to help people overcome their fears of flying after 9/11. VR is here to push our boundaries, not create a protective bubble.

By going outside of our safe spaces in virtual reality, we gain an appreciation for people who do hard jobs. We can grow our knowledge base and understanding. We can get outside of our individual echo chambers to experience life that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to otherwise. Just maybe, by living those experiences in virtual reality, we will have the courage to try them in real life or listen to people different from us in real life without feeling threatened. That is the real inclusive power of VR.

“Why would you even bother building that?”

Screenshot of the auditorium in rumii

This question popped up in one of my panels about communicating ideas in VR. This is the type of question that is a conversation stopper. I was talking about rumii, how we at Doghead Simulations are building a space for professionals on remote, distributed teams to collaborate and work. Why build rumii when AltspaceVR, BigScreen, or Facebook Spaces exists? We build rumii because we all have our target markets and specific pain points we’re addressing. The more diversity in programs and choices in VR experiences, the better. The market is small right now considering the number of people who have HMDs but, it is growing.


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