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Why You Should Try That Crazy Virtual Reality Headset

Posted on May 4, 2016 by David

Why You Should Try That Crazy Virtual Reality Headset

VR isn’t just for gamers—take a journey through the virtual experiences that will make the real world better

You’re going to own a virtual reality headset one day.

Yes, you’re going to put those funny-looking goggles on your face and your eyes won’t be rolling at me like they are right now.

I’ve been there. My interest in gaming stops at Monopoly. The promise of virtual reality meant little more to me than a funny photo opp.

But the buzz! It’s the future, they say! So I went on a journey to find virtual reality’s practical uses.

You can take a class of fifth-graders across the world without needing permission slips. You can inspect the countertops in that dream house you’ve been eyeing. You can feel your heart pound as you practice your big speech in front of a room of people who aren’t actually there.

It’s hard to believe how powerful it is until you’ve put on the headset and replaced your current reality. With that in mind, I created a 360-degree video. It’s best viewed with VR goggles, or at least Google’s cheap Cardboard phone holder. (We’ll get to that.)

By visiting places in the real world that I’d already seen in VR, I came to realize that these silly headsets can be magical. They also have a dark side: It’s easy to end up nauseous, and—more frighteningly—virtual experiences can sometimes get too real. More often than I imagined, the line between the two realities starts to blur.

Better Buying
Real estate agencies are starting to dabble in virtual reality. Here is a capture of a living room in a San Francisco penthouse. Photo: Matterport

I’m walking into the master bath of a $7.3M penthouse that just hit the market. The blue tub that backs up to a stunning view of downtown San Francisco is perfect. While examining the square showerhead, I feel something I never have before, a newfangled sort of déjà vu. Though my physical body has never been here, I remember it. In my office just two days ago, I was staring at the same brass spigot, via a VR headset.

The first person you try VR with could be a realtor rather than a Best Buy employee. San Francisco realtor Roh Habibi now keeps a Samsung Gear VR headset in his car. “I’ve locked in showings just after having a client put on the headset,” he says. Sales gimmick or no, when I set foot in that house, I knew exactly how to get to that bathroom. 

Virtual tours are made by capturing 3-D images using a $4,500 camera and special software sold by a startup called Matterport. You can click around an interactive model on a website, but it’s nothing like viewing it in Matterport’s Gear VR app, where you can tilt your head up to inspect the molding, then down to appreciate the stair runner. (Here’s the exact Matterport model of the house I visited.)

Though the images are still, you can move from one point to another. Just stare for a second at the spot you want to go to. Sound convenient? It’s like being thrown onto a fast moving train. In VR, when roaming from room to room, I needed Dramamine. In the real house, I just wanted Chardonnay.

I’m in a real classroom full of real fifth-graders—though not for long. We all raise our Google Cardboard smartphone holders to our faces and behold the Great Sphinx. “Now look over there to the left,” the teacher Robin says to us. “Remember we read about mastabas?”

We were on a Google Expedition, where the company provides Android phones, Cardboard holders and 360-degree photos to classrooms. Using a tablet, teachers guide and point out what students should focus on—should being the key word. “Do you see that car down there?” one child yelled. “They didn’t have cars in ancient Egypt!” replied another.

After their Egyptian tour, students were more engaged with the teacher’s questions and each other. The biggest lesson? While virtual reality runs a real risk of isolating us more, it can also connect people in a clever new way.

 

A 360-degree image of the Great Sphinx and pyramids from a Google Expedition. Photo: Google

Much of the expedition proceeds without headsets on, however. Partly, that’s to ensure the teacher can maintain students’ focus. It’s also out of caution for children’s use of VR. Makers of some systems, such as Sony and Oculus, dissuade users under 12 or 13. Google says children should be over 7 and have adult supervision.

Looking at the comfort and engagement, it’s easy to imagine students eventually attending class inside their headsets. But before anyone young or old can go in for longer hauls, the experience has to be gentler on our equilibriums.

For the most sensitive, even relatively passive VR experiences can bring on nausea. A few of my young friends mentioned feeling dizzy, even though Google’s images weren’t moving. Children might have trouble self-regulating symptoms like nausea and eyestrain, and the larger psychological impact has yet to be studied.

There’s also the issue of endurance. I generally don’t have a problem, though last week, after I spent 45 minutes lost in the Gear VR headset—by far the longest I’d kept it on—I felt like I’d just ridden the Cyclone at Coney Island.

Better Viewing
In a New York Rangers' VR simulation you play goalie as a player skates in on a breakaway. Photo: Strivr

Down on the ice, Madison Square Garden doesn’t feel as gigantic. But the Rangers’ goal seems really big when you’re trying to defend it. I skate out in front of the net to where—I know from virtual practice—I’ll have better luck blocking shots. Looking out 

 at the empty seats, I have that déjà vu again. This time, at least, real Rangers aren’t taking 100 mph slap shots at me.

Not even the most amazing IMAX film can provide the holy-wow-I’m-really-here sensation of a VR headset. It’s unlocking sports and entertainment experiences most of us would otherwise never have.

The Rangers goalie tryout, available at the Garden, is the best example yet. Instead of donning a helmet and pads, you step into an area with motion sensors, put on an HTC Vive headset and grab controllers. You wave your arms, blocking and shifting position, as hulking hockey players take shots on you. The whole experience was put together by a VR startup called Strivr.

You can now stand in the middle of this famous scene from the Broadway production of ‘The Lion King.’ Photo: Disney

While Strivr is focused mainly on pro training simulations, the NFL, NHL, NBA, PGA and other leagues are starting to capture games in

 360-degree video. While they could possibly stream them one day, viewers now tend to get stuck in one place while the action moves elsewhere. Games are also long, and could cause headset fatigue.

If, like me, you’d prefer a front-row ticket to a show, you’ll be happy to hear that the VR revolution is hitting Broadway, too. Disney ’s thrilling “Lion King” simulation, where you end up on stage, surrounded by dancers, singers and a baby Simba, is a must-watch. Andrew Lloyd Webber ’s “School of Rock” also put a camera smack in the middle of the action. Both are available on YouTube and some VR apps.

Better Being
A virtual-reality simulation done at a Stanford University lab prepares nervous subjects for speaking in front of a crowd. Photo: Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab

Inside the lab, I’m not myself. I look down and my hands look like a black woman’s. Gazing into a virtual mirror, I see a black woman in a business suit staring back at me. When I move my arm, she moves hers. I do a jumping jack, and so does she. I turn around, and a man starts yelling at me.

What if VR could make us behave better in the real world? What if it could make us more empathetic to strangers? What if it could help us conquer our fears?

At Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, founded and led by Jeremy Bailenson, these sorts of strange things can happen. You can be standing in a room when the floor falls away, leaving you terrified, on a skinny plank. You can appear before an audience of people who listen to your voice and follow your every move.

Their goal is to shape our psyches or social perspectives with experiences we wouldn’t normally have. Experiencing prejudice can produce empathy, Prof. Bailenson says. The crowd simulation is used to help overcome public-speaking anxiety.

“The brain hasn’t evolved to differentiate a compelling virtual reality experience from something that would happen in the physical world,” Prof. Bailenson says.

That’s the scariest thing about this technology. I was put into a first-person train heist game during an Oculus demo at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Firing the gun felt so real, I put it down and refused to fight. Instead, I just looked out the window and enjoyed the scenery.

In the next few weeks, gamer-focused systems like the $600 Oculus Rift and $800 HTC Vive will begin shipping. These high-end headsets provide the best experience, but require you be tethered to a powerful desktop computer, with motion trackers marking your gaming space.

Stepping down means sacrificing graphics—and losing a lot of the magic. Decent midlevel options include the $100 Samsung Gear VR and a coming LG headset designed to work with its new G5 phone. VR dabblers can start super cheap, with a Google Cardboard plus some VR apps like VRSE and Jaunt.

We’ll all find our own uses for virtual reality, just like we did with personal computers. For now, all of this hardware is more Apple II than iMac. It’s still the very early days.

As one of my fifth-grade friends screamed, “This is so awesome! I wish I could take it home!” Oh you will. One day.

Write to Joanna Stern at joanna.stern@wsj.com or on Twitter @joannastern

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