Virtual Reality

Not just a new wave of games

Is VR a fad, or is it here to stay? There are many differing views on this issue. Bianca Wright, senior lecturer at Coventry University, and tech-enthusiast thinks that this is an amazing tool for the future, and that future may already be here.

VR technology has been around for a while now, but I can’t help to think of it as new. It’s far from mainstream, and when an improvement, or some sort of failure makes the news, I always have to remind myself that it’s been around for decades. We have VR, we have Augmented Reality, we have Mixed Reality, so it’s hard to keep up with it. VR is not cheap, either, although the price range varies between the types of VR. You can play bigger, richer games if you have an HTC Vive headset or Oculus Rift headset on, but, although these companies made the experience cheaper and more accessible, you still need to by the kit for hundreds of pounds, and you need to have a PC that’s strong enough to run these gears, which will probably cost more than a thousand pounds.

Alternatively, you can choose from the many different headsets that only need a phone. With these you can play games, watch 360o videos, and experience a different kind of news stories from the media-outlets that produce these experimental pieces.

At Coventry University a small team has tried their own hands in mixing news stories and VR. ‘I think we’ve moved somewhat away from the core principle of what journalism is,’ Bianca says, ‘Which is to be a watchdog.’

But how does VR help this cause? ‘I think the most important element is to connect with the audience in a particular way, […], and I think the way we do that is to connect people with news stories in a much more intense way.’ She says that people are a bit desensitised form the news. When we hear about environmental catastrophise, war atrocities, or even every-day crime, we barely react to it. By the point the news gets to us it’s mostly statistics. A number, indicating casualties, or damages to cities. ‘Perhaps it’s not that same level of connection that it used to be.’ She thinks that by taking people into an experience using VR and allowing them to have some agency can be more immersive for them, and it my have a somewhat different effect than traditional news has.

Her team, with the help of Google, created a VR game along these lines. They showcased it in the Herbert Art Gallery in April. In the game the player can take on the role of a firefighter, trying to save the city centre during the bombing of Coventry in the middle of November 1940. During the game players can read the headlines of the Telegraph, and that, combined with the feel of urgency provided by the animated inferno around the player provides an immersive experience that throws them back seventy years. It’s clear that the purpose of this project was not to just to make a game, but to educate as well.

When I asked her about the future of VR, she argued that it’s not a fad and it hasn’t reached its maturity yet, although she thinks it’s getting close. ‘Probably what’s going to become mainstream first is augmented reality,’ which helps us to bring virtual items into the real world. There are several options for that, like many mobile phone applications, or the Google Glass, or Microsoft’s HoloLens. She believes that, with the prices falling, the technology is going to become more accessible for consumers.

‘There is a lot of opportunity, there is a lot of potential, not just in terms of news, not just in terms of gaming, but training.’ She’s been approached by a big corporate company to ask if she’d develop a training program for them, in VR. The technology can also be used for training in STEM.
‘As we see the cost fall, and the technology become much more sophisticated, it’s going to become more mainstream.’

It is true that it’s used in many different ways. The US and British military uses it for training soldiers for different situations. They can simulate flying, train medics and vehicle driving, and can put the trainees in dangerous battle scenarios, without the potential loss of life.

A company named Floreo has developed their own virtual simulations for children, to teach them how to handle social situations. It’s mostly developed for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and it provides a fun, safe experience that teaches how to build social relations. The game can be supervised and interacted with by the parent with a linked tablet.

Not everybody has the same hopes for VR as Bianca does. In April Dan Ackerman posted an article on CNET titled ‘It’s time to break up with VR.’ In the article he mentions that he is mostly talking about PC and console VR, and that mobile VR is ‘a separate category, with potentially more future upside, but also its own long list of problems and limitations.’

He was an early adopter for the technology, having bought both HTC Vive and Oculus Rift the day they came out, -the same is true for all the accessories for the headsets- as well as the PS VR.

Ackerman complains about the limitations of locomotion, meaning that to move around in most VR titles, you have to use point-and-click movement. Also, the fact that tethered VR has lots of cables makes it a dangerous activity. ‘You’re still tethered to a computer or console via a big cable. A cable that you’re definitely going to trip over, fight with or yank out of its ports on a regular basis.’

A solution to that problem was the backpack-style PC that you could wear while playing, but it also has its obvious limitations. HTC’s Vive Pro is a wireless headset, but it’s priced at £799, and that does not include the controllers and the sensors. It might be more powerful, but at what cost?

There are good games, of course, for this hardware. Gorn, SuperHot, Surgeon-simulator, or Star Trek: Bridge Crew are all good, but they all have the limitations that the headset and the controllers present.

With technology you never know what’s going to happen next. VR is an interesting way to play, so all we can do is to hope it gets better.

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