Odd VR Future: Living Room Adventures & the Power of Virtual Reality

Odd VR Future: Living Room Adventures & the Power of Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality is quickly becoming one of the biggest rising technologies, and now that Samsung’s Gear VR has reached consumers, we can expect a bigger presence from more players and better experiences.

Last weekend I got to try out the Gear VR at length, as XDA/Android Podcaster Corey Feiock brought it with him to a real-life hangout. On the surface, the contraption doesn’t look too different from the previous Gear headset, and the inside looks typical as well. There are a number of improvements in Samsung’s solution that makes it better over tried-and-true Cardboard and other headsets out there right now, the first being an additional gyroscope and accelerometers for more accurate tracking, lower latency, super-easily adjustable focus, better ventilation, and a handy D-pad and back button. Despite the improvements, this editorial will focus on the user experience and the software I found most interesting on it.

In the end, software and the experiences built through it are what will make or break the product (and ultimately the platform), and the Gear VR comes packed with options, many more than it had with its first development-focused iteration. A benefit of this VR offering is that, because of Samsung’s partnership with Oculus, this headset allows you to easily experience Oculus-branded applications and media. The first of these is Oculus Video, where you are put in a VR theater in front of a massive cinema screen. The theater is empty, with only leather seats and fancy walls surrounding you. The movies (or trailers) you pick then play on the screen in what is a strikingly convincing massive screen, only let down by the resolution of the 1440p phone and how it renders distant faces.

What makes these cinema simulation worth talking about, and past the unoriginality of the application, is the attention to detail of the experience — the key element of immersion. Said details have to be subtle, in order to make the immersive experience life-like, and thus many of them are only noticeable when you actively look for them. Things such as the behavior of the screen’s light, and how it wraps around the leather surface of the seats, how it bounces off the walls of the theater realistically and according to the color palette of the picture on display.

The effect was very convincing excusing the limitations of the display’s resolution. The hardware did its part faithfully. While watching movies on your own personal cinema might be entertaining, I saw yet another stretch of the technology that opened my eyes to an odd, yet likely common part of our future in VR: online hangouts. An Oculus Social Video app allows various users to join chatrooms where they sit around a large TV, and where friends or strangers can group around and watch the latest gaming tournaments on Twitch, Vimo Videos, etc. In the real world I was with friends, but my perception was somewhere else, with virtual strangers. My eyes and ears could only catch the virtual avatars of the chatrooms, floating heads and moving eyes mimicking the motions of the real person behind the headset.

Truly good VR content is that which you can’t experience anywhere else, that which is not mere mimicry of the real world

The people in these chatrooms were mostly Samsung enthusiasts, and some of them had already spent quite a bit of money on content  and media for this new VR service. As entertaining as the chat was, I also saw a few users behave in indescribably creepy ways, opening up Pandora’s box for a whole new breed of anonymous social interaction.

Overall, the experience felt surreal: like something out of that old The Chatroom movie where text chatrooms were represented on-screen with live-action hangout places. As weird as parts of it felt, I acknowledge many people will get a kick out of this, and it could be a strange new way of hanging out with friends all across the globe in a virtual living room… or the surface of the moon.

VR can produce sensory and emotinal stimuli that surprise the self-aware

But there is more to VR than movie theaters and couch nights with friends. The true VR content is that which you can’t experience anywhere else, that which is not mere mimicry of the real world. There are many “VR movies” you can try out, and you can also be put into various events from concerts to presidential debates. But the most engaging VR movies are those specifically designed to make use of the medium’s inherent strengths, and a few of the ones I tried have been memorable.

We tried these with noise-cancelling headphones in a room with various friends. The demo “Evolution of Verse” featured a beautiful mountain landscape and flocks of birds dancing to the melodic sounds of the demonstration. This movie was computer-rendered, however, and far-away textures were rendered shabby due to the limitations of the screen — almost N64-like. However, the actual models employed in the demo were well-made: the birds moved in 3D dazzlingly. The most awe-inspiring moment of the demo, though, involved being inside a womb and in-front of a giant baby. As silly or unimpressive as that might sound to most of XDA, the women in our living room found this the most amazing thing — one of them practically cried.

I was completely immersed into an experience that no other medium can provide.

I had discussed the emotional effects of VR at the BABBQ 2015 with some VR experts, and have heard stories about women reacting to VR babies in such a way before. Seeing it first hand was odd, and it demonstrated the effects these experiences can have on us. But the second demo, “Catatonic”, took those feelings a step further.

This one was a horror movie in which you are tied to a wheelchair and taken through an insane asylum. At first, I admired the details of the experience — past the screen door effect and a few sudden shakes, its virtual world was convincing. This live-action experience was superbly filmed, and at one particularly frightening point, the wheelchair I was riding was pushed down stairs — I then realized that my brain was producing an intense feeling of vertigo despite the fact that I was sitting straight on a chair. That’s when it truly hit me: I was completely immersed into an experience that no other medium can provide.

Odd Future

The hangout was great fun, and these experiences imprinted lasting memories on all of us, particularly the few in the room that were new to VR. The Samsung Gear VR is a surprising package for the price, but hardware aside, it displays some teases of what’s to come in the odd world of VR. The VR chatroom is, in particular, the weirdest yet most fascinating application I got to try — I can see it becoming a primary form of interaction and communication for many people, with all the added benefits and consequences. In a few years, many friends will be having VR football match get-togethers. At the same time, some people in those chatrooms made me fear for some of the social dangers this technology could bring. But that aside, it felt like a trip to a cheesy hollywood movie, a mix between The Chatroom, Gamer and Avatar.

VR has the potential to dramatically alter our way of life, culture, and society. It can create powerful experiences for good and evil, for entertainment, for education and for escapism. But as a lover of technology, I can’t help but find this very potential fascinating regardless of the outcome. These are only primitive samples – a taste – yet I can safely say that a strange new world is waiting for us.

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About author

Mario Tomás Serrafero
Mario Tomás Serrafero

Mario developed his love for technology in Argentina, where a flagship smartphone costs a few months of salary. Forced to maximize whatever device he could get, he came to know and love XDA. Quantifying smartphone metrics and creating benchmarks are his favorite hobbies. Mario holds a Bachelor's in Mathematics and currently spends most of his time classifying cat and dog pictures as a Data Science graduate student.