Don a pair of VR goggles and, like Alice walking through the looking glass, you’re immediately transported into a whole new world. That’s how it felt to me when, as a guest at VRstudios in Seattle, I suddenly found myself wandering through a virtual realm of surprises and superpowers.
The photo above depicts how, once the VR goggles are on, reality is split in two. In this case, the physical room I’m in is large and empty while, as the screen on the right, my virtual room is a well-furnished modern home. As I’m walking around the physical room, everything I see and interact with is taking place in a fully-equipped home including a kitchen, dining area, fireplace, closets and windows looking out on a sunny yard. I’m literally walking inside a 3D rendering of the space.
Instinctively, I found myself walking around the furniture even though I could have walked right through it. It’s clear that physical experience still informs behavior in the virtual world, helping to perceive the simulation as real. The environment is rendered as a 3D CAD model and, in some places, real photos of the location, art, and video are embedded. For instance, drones captured the actual view you’d see looking through the 25th-floor windows, and the virtual television was playing a real episode of Game of Thrones in HD. It was so real that I was tempted to stay and watch it to its end.
Trying on different configurations and design choices is possible with VRstudio’s Design Wand, a handheld remote used to move furniture, change the colors and details of rugs, walls, upholstery, and even change out the art. Of course the furniture doesn’t weigh anything, so I had fun tossing it about the space. My style of decorating for this home turned into more of the rock-n-roll ransack look than anything out of House Beautiful.
This kind of personalization is exactly what VRstudios built its technology to do. The start-up has developed environments—up to 15,000 square feet—for architecture, aerospace, and military applications. VRstudios is out in front of other players in the virtual reality space with several key features: just like a multi-player game, users in different geographic locations can meet and collaborate in the same virtual environment; wireless headsets allow you to move through the space untethered; highly accurate movement and position tracking; and an open-source platform that plays well with any device and can import data from other sources quickly. VRstudios is already shipping its systems to business customers around the world.
As a futurist, I’m really excited about VR as a new tool for creating live-action scenarios. We’ll invite people to not just imagine the future, but experience it in real time to see how ideas and decisions play out. As our world grows ever-more turbulent, VR will become critical to our ability to see, think and feel a strategic path forward.
As it takes its first steps out of the lab and into commercial ventures, excitement about VR is becoming quite frothy. Big players are taking big bets on the technology, where innovation is focused on making more facile and sophisticated headsets. Facebook has the Oculus Rift; Microsoft continues to work on its HoloLens (different experience: projects holograms into your world); Google has Cardboard (with more serious headsets in the works); and, as Samsung’s VR Gear (uses a mobile phone, a measure of how quickly VR is being adopted) can already be found at Walmart for $99, it leads the pack of mobile phone companies clamoring to get in the VR market.
Most of that activity is focused on games and entertainment right now, where VRstudios also plays with its VRcade product line. Focused on the Barcade category, the start-up has formed a promising partnership with arcade giant Dave & Buster’s, which is piloting the technology in California. Before I left VRstudios, I thought I’d give this world a whirl too.
Which is how I came to shoot my first zombie.
It was also my last. With zombies approaching from all directions (you can hear them when they’re coming up from behind), Time Zombies was not a good fit for an easy-scare like me. I surely would have come in first if winning the game had anything to do with how fast you say “I’m done!”
Scary stuff aside, I’m super excited about the potential of virtual reality. We’ll see it in tourism where we’ll visit the pyramids with friends ‘from afar,’ or take a trip together to Mars. Education will also benefit from VR’s interactive experiences, giving students a chance to ‘be' with Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial, or ‘swim’ within a whale pod as it migrates from Australia to Antarctica. We’ll likely see VR used in therapeutic and training purposes too, for leadership development, athletic training, cultural appreciation, or anti-bullying efforts.
Virtual reality offers a literal shift in perspective that is critical to both strategic thinking and empathetic relationships. I’m excited about VR’s benefits and its future…but not if it has zombies.