In 1965, Philip K. Dick’s novel, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, was published. It featured this memorable ingredient:
… unwilling colonists have fallen prey to a form of escapism involving the use of an illegal drug (CAN-D) in concert with “layouts.” Layouts are physical props intended to simulate a sort of alternate reality where life is easier than either the grim existence of the colonists in their marginal off-world colonies, or even Earth, where global warming has progressed to the point that Antarctica is prime vacation resort territory. The illegal drug CAN-D allows people to “share” their experience of the “Perky Pat” (the name of the main female character in the simulated world) layouts. This “sharing” has caused a pseudo-religious cult or series of cults to grow up around the layouts and the use of the drug.
And in his 1968 book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Dick included a religion called Mercerism that was totally virtual reality (this element is not included in the movie Blade Runner):
Philip K. Dick was soooo far ahead of everyone.
Recently, I finally got a glimpse of what he meant.
And it will change everything. Everything.
This is how it happened.
I went to the 23rd Street/6th Avenue Best Buy with two intentions:
1) Try the Insignia Flex Elite 7.85 tablet again.
2) Try the Samsung Galaxy View again.
I did the first. Never did the second.
Because sitting next to the View was the Samsung Galaxy Gear VR headset. Which I had no intention of trying but the pricetag said US$99. So I figured, what the hell.
I’d never had the chance to try VR before. At trade shows, the lines for demos had always been impossibly long.
So to see a VR headset sitting there unused?
There were several demo VRs (is that the right term, VRs? I’m using it anyway.) available. I selected the largest icon in the view, which was for a Cirque du Soleil thing (which I later learned is called Kurios).
Before that, when I put the headset on (well, I never strapped it on, I held it against my face), it beeped and the view became active.
And I sneered to myself, “I thought so.”
Because I was looking at a stupid screen. With edges. That didn’t fill my view.
Seriously, that’s what I expected all of it to be like. Because at a trade show ages ago, a company was selling a headset that promised watching TV through it would be like being in a theater with a ginormous screen. Well, I got to try that. And I thought the company was delusional. It looked like a shitty tiny screen floating in front of my eyes.
The choice selection screen on the VR appeared a bit larger than that, but still.
At the side of the headset is a touchpad of sorts and it’s used to position the pointer to select a VR to, um, view.
So, Cirque du Soleil.
A momentary spinner and then … BAM!
I could see pixels. It was low-res.
… I was surrounded by it. No edges.
… the three-dimensionality of it was better than real life, even at low-res.
… at one point I reached out with my hand to touch one of the people — and I had no hand!
This was just the beginning.
Another interruption: I haven’t been to see a 3-D movie in just about forever. I’ve never been impressed by the 3-D. It always looked like animated paper cutouts on different planes of depth. Everything was still flat, just at different depths.
The 3-D of the Cirque du Soleil was not like that at all. It was full freaking 3-D.
And people talk about “immersive” experiences? How you can lose yourself in a book or movie?
No, only VR is actually immersive.
Another demo I tried was Cinema VR. I played a Transformers movie 3-D trailer.
And there was the pathetic 3-D I detest. Flat cutouts at different depths. Not immersive at all. Like those “TV glasses” of ages ago.
Another demo was a CGI rendering of being underwater (I think it’s called Blue VR). This had far fewer pixels than the other demos. And it was eerie. I turned my head all around. Fish came up to my face. Sharks sped past me — and because you can’t hear them, boom!, you’re shocked to see one blithely passing by. And being in the water and looking up at the bottoms of icebergs is a real trip.
Immersive. This was 360-degree in all directions immersive. Left, right, up, down, every damn angle. No seams, no edges, all How The Hell Did They Do This?!
And then there was the demo/trailer of The Martian, from the movie.
This one above all the others made my head explode.
I’m in outer space. No. I’m surrounded by outer space. Stars all over the place. The dust of galaxies spanning countless miles. I look down. I have no feet. I turn my head. I’m in orbit above Mars!
Then I’m moving over the surface of Mars. Moving. I look down. I have no feet. But the ground is moving. I become disoriented and reach out to grab the countertop!
It went on from there. But my god, the sensation. I was totally disembodied. I was surrounded. I was elsewhere. My real-world feet didn’t matter. I had no hands to touch anything “out there.” I was just eyes.
Another demo was called Bandit Six. I’m in the turret of a World War II tail gun. I can look all around me at the “cockpit.” I look down and I have to huge-ass fighter’s body I don’t have in real life, seated. If I look down more, my “body” disappears and I see the seat itself! I didn’t know if this was interactive nor how to interact. The touchpad at the side of the visor isn’t easy to distinguish, a weak point of this. Bombs were going off, fighter planes were attacking, and all I could do was … sit there. At least it never ended in death! But looking at that setup, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine it redone for a Star Wars game and the classic scene of Luke in the Millennium Falcon shooting TIE Fighters.
Another demo I tried was called The Recruit. I’m seated in a low-res dimly-lit room with a badly-CGIed desk. A human — not CGI — woman enters and begins a spiel about what I’ll experience, what they can do to me, and how they want me to work for them. It was very weird. The weirdest part was at the end, when she said they could even instill fear. And suddenly we’re outside. Above a cityscape. And I look down. And I have no feet. And I’m in mid-air between and higher than the roofs of two skyscrapers! Geeeeeez! I had to grab the countertop again because I had the fear I would plummet to the ground!
I must have looked like a spaz to anyone passing by. Turning my head all over the place, going “Holy shit!” at certain points.
And let me plop in the tweets I sent out minutes after this experience:
Here’s the thing, though. I actually spoke to one of the reps at the Samsung area. He told me these were intentionally low-res demos. He said they’re nothing like a full 4K experience. He said they wouldn’t do any full 4K demos because people would be using the demo visor for hours at a time. I believe it!
For two days afterwards, I couldn’t look at “reality” the same way. My sense of “reality” being “unreal” persisted for quite some time. Reality is boring enough to me as it is. And VR is like experiencing “real” reality. Like the crack cocaine of reality.
I had to go back for a second bout to see if my initial impressions held up.
I still can’t get out of my mind this one image of looking up at the bottom of an iceberg, from the Blue VR. The sense of distance!
And another demo I tried then was a flyover of New York City. While this didn’t have the eerie depth of the Cirque du Soleil Kurios VR, it was still unnerving to be flying over the new World Trade Center site. It’s an area I’m at a lot. And then to look down and see I have no feet yet the street hundreds of feet down below!
The least impressive VR demo was called Inside Endeavor, which promised a look at the space shuttle in its hangar. This was marred by having a flatness to it, a very noticeable seam between images that didn’t stitch together properly, and an experience-ruining black dot when looking directly down.
Another demo was a trailer for the Hunger Games: Mockingjay movie. This was like walking through a videogame. Its most impressive and unsettling feature happened at the end. When my “height” changed, I became smaller, and I was “inserted” into a wireframe diagram/map of a city. Having my position changed like that was as disorienting as being moved over the surface of Mars in The Martian.
The least impressive demo was photos. They lacked 3-D, were 360-degree only — with a copyright notice when you looked straight down! — and felt disappointingly flat.
It’s been well over a week since these demos and:
1) I can’t stop thinking about them.
2) I can’t look at the real world in the same way.
Now readers understand why I’ve had posts about VR seemingly out of nowhere, after never mentioning it at my prior blog.
I’m a total n00b at VR. Probably one of the last people who write about tech of any kind to experience it. Jillions of words have been written about VR by people who have thought about it for a very long time.
The only thing that I can add is my experience of it and reaction to it. And it’s this:
This is the biggest thing to hit mankind so far in its history.
Once everyday people catch on to it, it will be bigger than the introduction of the iPhone.
I felt like Steve Jobs at Xerox PARC when he saw the demo of the STAR graphical user interface.
I’m not going to go on about how pr0n VR will totally ruin lives. That’s a given.
What I want to mention is this:
1) The first person to do a VR version of a movie like Koyaanisqatsi will have a huge hit on their hands.
2) I once mentioned Microsoft Moon. VR would make this worth doing (hello, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos?). Imagine being on the Moon, from the point of view of a rover crawling over it! Would space archaeologists and historians allow such a rover to get near an Apollo landing site so we could see it up close?
3) For the most part, I think anyone plotting to dominate VR with CGI is delusional. The best CGI in the world is done by Pixar. Only they could do worthwhile VR CGI. (Yes, I liked the underwater Blue VR, but that was still just a demo and the water was unrealistically clear. Actual seawater is filled with detritus.) If Jeff Katzenberg had any sense, he’d immediately pivot Dreamworks Animation to VR production. All other CGI — outside of Hollywood’s imagery expertise — is just a videogame. I’m not interested in games, but I can see how VR gaming will again dwarf Hollywood box office yearly totals and even set new records.
4) I’d love to experience a VR of the city in The Fifth Element.
5) I want to have my childhood wish of flying Supercar done in VR.
6) I want a VR app that will let me experience synethesia with numbers.
7) Imagine the “lightshow” from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey as a 3-D immersive experience.
8) I want a 3-D immersive computing environment. This is years in the future, but doing things the “flat” way on a notebook at home is even more irritating to me now. I know people are already working on this, but this video doesn’t impress me:
9) A note to the production team of Thunderbirds Are Go: You already have the CGI set up. Do a VR of us being Scott Tracy and getting into Thunderbird 1.
10) If you’re going to buy a new phone this year, absolutely do not buy one with anything less than a 2K-resolution screen. You’ll need that resolution when you decide you want to try a phone-powered VR headset (even if it’s Google Cardboard or by View-Master). Anything of lower resolution will give you what’s called a “screendoor” effect — like looking through a door or window screen.
Now I understand why Sony went with a 4K screen for their Xperia 5. They must have a corresponding VR headset coming this year.
11) The book publishing industry is going to crater. If they thought games ravaged them, VR — and VR games — will bury them. This is what you get for ignoring the digital future. Not even rapidly discounting eBooks will save you. For most people, reading is a chore. VR will be better than watching TV.
12) There’s a huge shift to tell a story in VR. With TV and movies, we’re watching something. Being immersed in a VR story means becoming a witness. An entirely new structure for storytelling will have to be created. We await the D.W. Griffith of VR.
13) VR creates a whole new problem for metadata and metacontent. I don’t even want to think about this.
14) VR is not a “thing.” This is vital to understanding it (and anyone who tries it understands it immediately). It’s not a “thing,” like a phone, or an MP3 file, a video file, or even any headset. It’s an experience. Probably the most incredible experience to date in human history. This is another reason why an entirely new way of telling a story must be developed.
VR is seriously disorienting for me.
For two days after my first series of demos, I didn’t feel “normal.”
The sensation after the second demo didn’t last as long but I felt I was walking around with “saucer eyes.”
And remember this: I had experienced VR that wasn’t full resolution!
Not all VR has to be an adrenaline-inducing thrill ride. Over in Europe, they’ve been pioneering “slow TV.” There will be a place for that in VR too. If VR rovers are ever placed on the Moon, that would be “slow VR” — the coverage would be endless and people can look in any time they choose.
As much as I want to delve into reading old books from Google Books, I have to confess than VR excites me even more. This is another reason why the book publishing industry will crater. If I can be swayed by VR — someone who writes, for fuck’s sake, who lives for words — imagine the reaction of people who buy maybe one book a year. They’ll spend their money on VR experiences instead.
I’ve been doing reading about VR and watching videos about VR (but not VR videos, which are shit on a flat screen). I have a lot of catch-up to do.
But this is an entirely new frontier.
If you haven’t tried VR yet, do any damned thing you can to try it. Find a T-Mobile store or Best Buy store that has the Samsung Galaxy Gear VR available to demo. From what I’ve read and from video reviews on YouTube, this is the best way to try it for the first time, better than Google Cardboard.
You will never see anything the same ever again.
One final note: There shouldn’t be any damned lock-in! VR needs to be open, like the Internet.