Thanks to my friend Brian, I recently had the opportunity to try out Valve’s new work on virtual reality. Only a couple hundred or so people have had the chance to try it so far, and most of them are people within the video game industry. I went in thinking that it would be a fun diversion, and left thinking that it will fundamentally change the world.
I’ve tried a lot of virtual reality devices over the years. When an ill-fated virtual reality arcade opened up in Austin, Texas, my friends and I hoarded coupons for a free game from the newspaper and played for hours. On a school trip to Houston I bought a Nintendo Virtual Boy, which I absolutely loved. And then, when getting a demo of Matterport’s room-scanning software, I got to try an Oculus Rift.
All of those experiences were really great, but what Valve has managed to do is to make virtual reality so real that my brain records it as something I did or experienced, rather than something I saw. That’s a huge shift, and having experienced it, I predict that it will change everything.
The Valve demo is about half an hour long. You go into a weird room that may have been a storage closet in a previous life, and put on a big prototype looking headset. The guy who operates the demo cycles you through about a dozen different demos.
In the first one you’re inside a big cube. Neat, but not particularly amazing. A few later you’re in a similar cube, but there’s a ball bouncing around inside it with you. When the ball comes near your head, you duck. You duck not because it’s a game (it’s not), but because it feels so real, that your reflexes cause you to duck. It’s hard to suppress that instinct.
The primary breakthrough Valve has made is that they can track you with incredible precision in 3D space. So you can physically walk around the room to walk around objects. If there’s a small item on the ground, you kneel down and put your head close to it. You never think about how much of an idiot you must look like to the other people in the room, because you feel as though you’re somewhere else.
It was interesting to me that none of the demos we ran through were games, considering Valve is a video game company. More interesting is that they don’t need to be games to be engaging. Because that line between observation and experience has been crossed, just being put in a new environment is really compelling.
I can imagine virtual tourism happening. I love real travel, but I would probably try it out. I can imagine being in a virtual space with someone across the globe who is also wearing a VR headset. It wouldn’t actually be like visiting them, but it would feel more real than skype does. Because this level of VR codes as an experience, I can’t help but think that training in virtual reality could effectively translate into real life. The best uses of VR are probably things that I can’t even imagine at this point.
We live in an exciting time. In my short lifetime I’ve seen the birth of the internet, 3D graphics, mobile computing, digital currency, 3D printing, and any number of other things. After experiencing the virtual reality they’ve cooked up at Valve, I have no doubt that virtual reality’s time has come and it will be one of the most significant technological advances of our time.
Photo is an awesome portable dealer button that my friends helped me make. It’s cut and engraved with a laser, which is amazing.
We’re heading to the island in a week, where we’ll be beginning work in preparation for the summer. Christian Holmes, who’s been reading here forever and also lives in a Rialta, will be joining us. In other words… Island update soon!