The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades – virtual and augmented reality

I think that I’m probably the last person in the technology industry to have experienced virtual reality or ‘VR’. Other than a quick and decidedly unimpressive play with Google Cardboard, I’d given VR a pretty wide berth. It was never really a deliberate move to stay away, but deep down I knew that I wanted to be truly ‘wowed’ by it and therefore the time and conditions had to be just right. With that in mind I avoided casual opportunities to play with Samsung’s headsets or even the early developer kits of Oculus. I’d seen the reactions of others and while some brave souls talked about how truly ‘ground breaking’ it all was, quite a few voices I respected were muted in their first impressions. The common theme seemed to be that ‘great’ was just around the corner, with the next release of hardware or software being the point that it all would come together.

But come last year whilst on a visit to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, curiosity eventually got the better of me. The huge and shiny Oculus stand in the middle of the main hall just had a gravity that pulled me across from the other surrounding exhibitors. After queuing for what seemed an age, I was ushered upstairs into a fancy booth, fitted with a headset and let loose into a virtual world of games and experiences. Much has been written about those experiences by others, so I won’t go over that ground in detail. I desperately wanted to come away completely amazed and enthralled. But the reality was just as I expected – there were moments of true wonder and amazement and then just when I wanted to feel completely carried away, I saw the pixels, the end of my nose, got motion-sick or just felt disconnected with the experience. I left the stand happy to have tried it all, but wishing I’d just waited another year before getting involved.

Fast forward to this year and a couple of chance events happened to bring VR back into my frame of reference again. Firstly, my once-trusty home PC coughed, spluttered and gave up the ghost, prompting me to think about building a new machine for the house. The ‘man-maths’ calculator came out and told me that it would probably make good sense to build a machine that was capable of running a VR headset ‘in the future…’. Secondly, a good friend and fellow CTO, Matt Webb from the design agency Mirum wanted to come over to Nominet and bring Microsoft’s augmented reality (AR) ‘Hololens’ headset with him. He sneakily knew how to get to us when we were most vulnerable, namely just as we were thinking of new ways to visualise some of the amazing patterns we see within the UK DNS traffic.

Within a week, I’m standing in a small room surrounded by our R&D team, looking like an extra from a sci-fi movie. In front of me, standing on the table is a 2ft high French mime artist – gesturing me to watch him perform a mime. As I walk around the room, he remains firmly standing on the table, performing his funny little dance. Next I’m looking at a hole I’ve accidentally blown into the meeting room wall with a laser blaster. Plaster is falling away and as I walk up to the real wall, I can see down behind the plaster and into the wall itself. As others try the headset there’s lots of ‘wowing’ and ‘whoahing’. It’s a very different experience from Oculus/VR in that you’re still very much in ‘actual reality’ but overlaid with some very clever graphics and processing. Yet despite this, the headset is still heavy, the pixels are very visible and if you move too quickly a strange letter-boxing effect completely blows the experience. Score so far – zero to the headsets, two, to disappointment.

But despite the setbacks, a spark had been ignited in me and I’d learned to start accepting the limitations and consider the possibilities. The new home PC arrived from the supplier and I managed to get my hands on a ‘loaner’ Oculus Rift for some extended playtime. My first experiment was to see how my two girls (8 and 10) reacted to the experiences. That was fascinating in itself: like everyone they were wowed by the showstopper stuff – a friendly alien, a charging T.Rex, but left alone with the thing, I would find them simply exploring the entry ‘lobby’: a 3D rendering of what looks like an alpine ski lodge. They would spend ages trying to sit on the cushions in the foreground or trying to reach the bar at the back of the room. It was the simple joy of exploring that captured their fascination, rather than rampaging dinosaurs or cute aliens.

I’d been told that the PC game ‘Elite’ was really spectacular in VR. It’s an open space exploration game where grown men (by and large…) get to act out their Star Wars/Star Trek fantasies as space pirates, heroes and villains. In the spirit of ‘research’ I downloaded the game, strapped on the Oculus headset and jumped into my space ship. Suddenly I’m sitting in the seat of a cockpit. When I look up through the roof I can see an enormous star-port above me. Taking off, the world whirls around and I’m completely enthralled and immersed. Space ships zip past and I turn my head naturally to watch them fly by. I’m totally lost in this world and I don’t want to stop. Then the motion sickness hits: my brain and ears just aren’t ready for the disconnect between what they are seeing all around me and the fact that they aren’t really moving.

But it’s here that my whole VR world suddenly crystallises. I park my ship down and just sit there on the landing pad, wondering how quickly I’ll stop feeling sick. I decide to stand up from my actual chair and sure enough my virtual character stands up with me. I start to wonder whether I can walk backwards into my space ship cockpit, so in real life I start walking around. Forgetting that I’m actually in my tiny study, I collide with the shelving on the wall and I stumble backwards. As I turn, I see a grab-handle on the side of my pilot’s chair in the spaceship. I reach out to grab it to stabilise myself. And there it is: that moment when the future and promise of VR suddenly becomes a reality. Total immersion and belief in the virtual world. I’ve not stopped talking about it since.

For all the lasers, dinosaurs, aliens and spaceships – that simple moment of suspension of disbelief has made me a convert. Talk to nearly anyone about Oculus and they’ll tell you about the ‘Dinosaur demo’. Talk to me, and I’ll explain all about the handle on a chair.


Cover photo – Nominet’s Bryan Marshall contemplating his virtual future: Simon McCalla

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