This is a guest post by filmmaker, author, entrepreneur, and now Virtual Reality developer Hugh Hancock.
Virtual Reality's here. Woo. Yay. More tech toys.
The UK just voted to leave the EU. Trump's in line for the White House. Climate change is making its effects felt. Automation's really starting to bite. A lot of very smart people are starting to get very worried about AI.
So why exactly should you care about a bunch of nerds strapping really expensive phone housings to their face?
Well, I recently dropped a 20-year film career to go full-time into VR - specifically room-scale VR, the kind where you walk around and flail about. I've spent the last 2-3 months completely immersed in it, for full-on 80-hour-week crunch values of "fully immersed", developing Left-Hand Path, a Dark Souls-inspired room-scale VR RPG.
There's a reason for that. I've been doing the "futuristic tech" thing for a while and I've been involved in massive, super-exciting technology shifts before. I founded a rather successful dotcom during the first dotcom era, for example.
This feels as exciting. I'm pretty sure that ignoring VR right now looks a lot like ignoring that "Interweb" thing circa 1996. It's going to change the world.
And here's the important bit: it gives us a whole load of reasons to hope that it'll change it for the better.
VR Sets Physical Design Back 2 Centuries
In a good way, that is.
I was talking to a landscape architect the other day, and he explained that the single biggest problem in his job is visualisation.
Sure, you can draw plans. You can create CAD models. You can render nice renders. But at the end of the day, none of them are even close to actually being there.
VR is close to being there. VERY close to being there. I've seen people playing Left-Hand Path leap backward from monsters, get on their hands and knees to look under furniture, and giggle with glee as they realised they could pick up a burning branch and light a candle with it.
That's darn neat for games, but if your entire livelihood relies on being able to accurately visualise 3D things, it's life-changing.
VR enables architects to just build the damn building, then walk round it. It lets artists paint on a 25 foot canvas rather than a 24" monitor. It enables engineers to step around their creation, spin it, manipulate it with their hands like they're Tony Stark.
In short, it transforms what were 3D tasks awkwardly done through a 2D interface back into fully-3D work in a 3D space. That's what I mean by "sets design back 2 centuries" - it takes us back to a time when physical design was done physically, but adds all the advantages of computer modeling too.
The productivity gains here can't be underestimated. We could easily be looking at a 2-fold improvement if not more for all the industries affected. That's a big deal for industries that are massively affected by the uncertainty right now, which are pretty much all of the design-based ones: construction, engineering, and of course the arts. If there's one thing that a bunch of expensive, difficult industries going into tough economic times could do with, it's a new technology that makes them a lot more efficient.
And if you're not a designer? It'll still be incredible when you're considering remodeling your bathroom, buying a new car, or replacing the hallway floor. That's why the early adopters for VR include a number of big car manufacturers, and why one of the first apps to be released for the Vive was from IKEA.
VR Might Be The Biggest Shakeup For Public Health In The Last 50 Years
I've talked about this in the past, so I won't go on about it again, but let me just say: cardiovascualar exercise is massively important for health. It's particularly important in combating metabolic symdrome, which the NIH referred to last year as an "epidemic".
Most people don't get enough cardio.
About 20% of the world plays computer games regularly.
Computer games are about to become a form of exercise. VR games are serious workouts. And they're serious workouts that are already getting a lot of people who never normally exercise into strenuous physical activity.
I've heard people say that gamers will never accept physical exercise as a requirement. A lot of people have said a lot of things about gaming - that it would never appeal to women, that it would never require an internet connection, that MMORPGs would never take off...
VR Is The Most Successful Travel Substitute Ever Devised
I'm not talking about virtual tourism here. Sure, VR tourism is pretty cool, and sure, being able to feel like you're going up Everest without the oxygen deprivation and death is neat, but that's not the issue here.
I'm talking about the other reason for travel. The not fun one. Business.
Business travel costs 1.2 trillion dollars worldwide per year. Mostly, it's a fairly terrible experience. It eats hours or days sitting unproductive in hotels or on planes. But it's necessary, because a teleconference just doesn't deliver the same experience of presence and working together.
It's early days yet, but it looks like full-body VR just might.
Here's what a reviewer for Engadget said about AltSpace, the pioneering "put people together in VR" app right now, which is still in beta:
" It felt comfortable. Natural. Easy. Before long, I started to forget about the odd combination of robots and taverns and started to just enjoy hanging out with other people in VR."
Other reviewers report similar things.
Add to that the "physical design" advantages I mentioned above, and the fact that VR meetings also can, for example, feature an infinite wall of whiteboards to work on, and VR starts to look like a serious competitor to business travel for many purposes.
If I wanted to make money out of VR right now as my primary goal, as opposed to telling stories, this is the field I'd be hitting hard. A VR headset and PC to run it costs about the same as a single economy-class intercontinental business trip, if not a bit less.
And let's be honest, who wouldn't want to get rid of the dozen-hours-in-economy-then-another-dozen-in-the-chain-hotel experience?
Again, this is particularly important right now. Across the world the barriers to travel are increasing - visas required where they weren't before, US officials planning to ask for social media details, Brexit. VR tears down barriers to meeting and communication, just at a time when they're being raised.
It's also very interesting in light of the ongoing housing crisis. The more a virtual office can replace a physical office, the less requirement there is to be in an overpriced city like London. If you can get a decent internet connection - and you can - in the Isle of Skye, you can perfectly happily commute to the virtual office just as easily as you could from the Isle of Dogs.
VR totally changes physical togetherness
There's a corollary to the "business travel" thing. "Travel" with VR is effectively free.
That means that you more or less eliminate distance as a factor in many relationships.
The Internet has already done that to a significant extent, but whilst I can write on Facebook walls or even have Skype chats with my friends in the Bay Area, I can't play pool with them, or watch a movie with them, or go to the gym with them.
In VR, I can do all those things. In fact, one of the fastest-selling VR apps by a country mile is Pool Nation VR, which is essentially a pub games simulator. I bought it after seeing a couple of friends on Facebook talking about their game of pool last night - they're a thousand miles apart. I don't get to hang out with either of them very often.
Now I can casually challenge them to a game of pool in a virtual pub any time I like.
Just looking at my personal life, this could be a huge change. I can watch the superhero movies with my friends in LA (once Netflix works properly with the joint-presence movie players). I can play pool with my mates in Austin, New York, and Bangkok. Once they all have a headset, I can sit down for a game of Mansions of Madness with my boardgame-mad friends in Wales I never see.
And this will extend into the entertainment sphere too. Twitch has already shown there's a huge demand for live events, even if it's just a webcam view of one person. VR enables the physical gig again, only this time you don't have to find an audience in a single town - you can draw them from all over the world.
I'm not a musician, a comedian, or a theatre director, but I'm guessing changing the potential catchment area for any live event from "size of local town" to "world" is going to have an effect.
And again, the world can really use a technology that lets people from around the world get together and enjoy common experiences right now. On which subject...
VR Promotes Empathy
It's rather obvious at the moment that the world's polarising, badly. I'm not going to go into my personal theories of why that is (cough, social media, cough, filter bubble), but it's happening.
So it's a good thing that the up and coming tech has a rather well-noted side effect of promoting empathy extremely effectively.
VR gets closer to literally putting you in someone else's head than anything ever has. (I play with this in Left-Hand Path - many of my players have been somewhat surprised half-way through to realise that the body they're in doesn't have the gender they were expecting, and there are some plot twists beyond that which I won't reveal.)
Stanford is studying the empathic effects of VR very closely. Creators are using it to put people into the experience of Syrian refugees, or disabled people, or simply people of different physical characteristics - like gender.
If there's one thing the world could do with right now it's an empathy machine. And VR looks like it's just that.
VR Lets Us Create Worlds
And then there's that.
Virtual Reality literally - or at least, for all intents and purposes - lets us create worlds.
We've been able to describe worlds before. We've been able to create pictures and even videos of them.
But now we can create a place, a town, a planet, a universe, and step inside it. Or invite others to step inside it.
I'm finding that to be one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. Watching a streamer walk through my world and my story experiencing it, physically interacting with it, wondering over it and even getting frustrated by it, is just astonishing.
It's nothing like writing an article and reading the comments, or even making a movie and going to the premiere. It's something entirely new.
And that's why I'm so excited about VR.
There's a lot of horrible stuff going on in the world right now. And a lot of even more scary stuff that might be about to happen.
But that doesn't mean there's not also amazing stuff happening. World-changing, ground-breaking, potentially even humanity-altering stuff.
I'm pretty sure working, mass-scale VR is that sort of Stuff.
What did I miss? Are there other reasons to be thrilled about VR? Am I being too optimistic? Or is there something else even bigger on the horizon?