Virtual Reality is frequently proclaimed as the 'next big thing' but is it anything more than a fun addition to the world of gaming and entertainment? Could it have wider impact on the world of public engagement with research?
The cut-throat world of technology and innovation is littered with the bones of inventions that never lived up to their initial hype. Anybody out there still enjoying their 3D TV?
So it’s fair enough that the public tends to be sowhat skeptical when evangelical technophiles announce the arrival of the ‘next big thing’ to the world. And, at the moment, that ‘next big thing’ is undoubtedly virtual reality.
The Virtual Gold Rush
In 2014 Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg stoked the flames of VR hype when he bought Oculus Rift, a virtual reality start-up, for $2 billion, making its 22 year old owner, Palmer Luckey, one of the richest young American entrepeneurs since...well, Mark Zuckerberg.
Meanwhile another tech company, Magic Leap, which Wired magazine called 'the world's most secretive startup', has been pioneering another form of virtual reality technology known as mixed-reality (read this post for the differences between virtual reality, mixed-reality and augmented reality) which places virtual objects into real-world environments, like the GIF at the top of this page. Magic Leap is already valued at $4.5 billion.
Zuckerberg and fellow VR-fanatics promise much, claiming that the technology will totally revolutionise the way we shop, learn, play, heal, travel and communicate. But is it really as powerful as they say it is? And what impact can it have as a tool for communication of ideas and public engagement?
A Powerful Tool for Change
At Orinoco Communications we’ve started experimenting behind-the-scenes with VR video and we're excited about its potential. Within seconds of putting on a basic headset for the first time and popping my iPhone in the slot I was swept up on a CGI journey through the human body, zooming around a high-speed racetrack and soaring above New York's skyscrapers. But it's not all about spectacular visuals.
Researchers at the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab are exploring how VR can affect us from a psychological point-of-view and they've made some remarkable discoveries pointing towards a powerful idea: immersion in a virtual world can have a real impact on people's mindset, influencing behaviour and engagement far more than traditional media.
In one study, testing a virtual scenario to improve financial responsibility, students looked into a virtual mirror and saw their own faces, aged to 70, staring back. Incredibly, when they emerged from the scenario tests showed that the experience had changed them and that they were now more careful about saving for retirement than when they went in.
In another project people are given the opportunity of visiting an underwater virtual world to learn more about the devastating effects of ocean acidification. Jeremy Bailenson, VHIL's director, says that by showing people the consequences of their actions in virtual reality it forces them to reconsider their behaviour in the real world, opening up huge possibilities for altering the way people engage with critical issues like climate change.
It's still early days for virtual reality and its associated technologies. It's clear that it has far greater potential for public engagement than other technologies like 3D film but there are still some hurdles for it to overcome before it is readily adopted by the wider public, such as ease of use and ability to integrate the technology into day-to-day life.
In the meantime we'll be continuing to experiment with the technology and we're hoping to be able to share some content with you before too long!
And if you want to try it out for yourself check out my Beginner's Guide to VR which takes you through some of the most affordable smartphone headsets and the best content to get you started.
15th September 2017: Since writing this blog post in 2016 I came across a great video from Future of Storytelling, where VR pioneer, Barnaby Churchill Steel, cofounder of Marshmallow Laser Feast, speaks passionately about the power of VR to inspire, educate and connect us with nature. It really shows off VR's potential to give us experiences that otherwise wouldn't be possible. Exciting stuff!
Peter Barker runs Orinoco Communications, a digital communications company specialising in helping research groups from science, the social sciences and the humanities to bring their research alive and engage with the public.