Virtual Reality and the continuing quest for immersive entertainment

Two extremes of entertainment

Imagine this – a group of people are gathered around a fire at night. Dinner is done, and an elder of the group is telling a story about the creation of the world. The story involves animals, natural elements and gods. Its a gripping story and the group sits fascinated, forgetting for some time the efforts and dangers that daylight will bring. For some time at least they’re immersed in this story. Imagine that this scene takes place a few thousand years ago, when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. The story being told by the elder was one of the very few forms of entertainment available to them, a respite between hard days of survival.

Steven Spielberg’s latest movie Ready Player One (2018) shows how humans in the year 2045 constantly entertain themselves using the advanced virtual reality (VR) technology available. They spend the most of their time in a virtual universe called OASIS rather than in the real world. In this virtual universe they can become someone else, a virtual character with fantastical powers, riches and adventures. OASIS is a wonderful virtual substitute for them to escape into, away from the dystopian drudgery of their real world.

Entertainment is all about immersion, folks…

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My son and me enjoying a VR ride, 2017

Our desire for immersive entertainment is not new. We have always sought escape from our reality, and the technologies enabling this have evolved over time. From listening to stories to reading them – every child still goes through these immersive experiences in their early years. From losing yourself in a beautiful piece by Mozart on a gramophone in earlier days to today’s more immersive personal experience using noise-cancelling headphones. Getting deeply engrossed in the wonderful audio-visual experience that is a good movie and soundtrack, especially with surround sound. In recent times gaming gets a place on this list, although restricted to a small number of hard-core gamers. And now VR is just the latest in a long list of devices invented by humans to take us away from our one real reality into magical imaginary alternate ones.

There are more than 5 senses…really!

We have all been taught about our five traditional senses through which we experience the world – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, thought of sight and hearing as the “noble” senses, mainly because they can work at distances. Smell, taste and touch, on the other hand, he considered as “animal” senses and ranked them lower.

Interestingly, researchers have now identified more senses, like the sense of balance & acceleration or the sense of temperature, or even the non-sensory sense of time.  They also describe a sense called proprioception (you’ll have to Google that one). There are a quite a few more – a symphony of our senses at work and a Greek philosopher who was only partially right!

The senses are fooled and the mind is tricked

But it is our mind that is the target! All the sensory paths lead to the mind, which makes sense (!) of all these inputs. Obviously, the more senses that can be covered by an entertainment device or kit, the easier it will be to trick the mind into believing that we are in a different, virtual reality and leading to a more immersive entertainment experience.

As an example, 3D cinema creates the visual illusion of depth for the viewer and enables a more involved viewing experience – slightly more immersive than the regular two-dimensional films. 4D theaters in amusement parks often stimulate the sense of touch by spraying droplets of water (the sneeze of a dragon!) or ropes swishing against your legs (creepy big spiders!), but these movies last a few minutes at most. 4DX theater technology introduces shaking seats (a jarring helicopter ride) and smells (a car in flames) for full-length action movies – but as movies are not yet “designed” with 4DX in mind the experience is not always enjoyable.

Virtual Reality (VR) via clunky wrap-around headsets

Lawnmower Man quote

The above text is the introduction to The Lawnmower Man (1992, with Pierce Brosnan and Jeff Fahey), the movie that introduced me to VR in the early 90’s. It is now well past the turn of the millennium but VR finally seems to be getting there. Basic VR can be experienced cheaply using a cardboard headset coupled with your smartphone. More advanced and expensive VR kits take immersive entertainment further – wraparound headsets target the “noble” senses of sight and hearing, providing visual and audio inputs to convince our minds that we’re in a virtual world. These make for intense individual experiences, with powerful impacts, and can sometimes be disconcerting or even disorienting.

And coming up next…

Innovative story-tellers, musicians and movie-makers have taken advantage of every contemporary technology to build devices to enthrall their audiences. VR creators are doing the same today. A history of immersive entertainment will chart the progress of such entertainers using evolving technologies and devices to cover more and more of our senses.

What’s coming? Gloves are already being developed to provide tactile input, and full body suits will follow in due course. Teams around the world are working on technology to diffuse specific smells into the nose as appropriate for the scene in your VR headset. It may not be far away when a combination these technologies will be used to create a completely immersive entertainment experience, a truly realistic virtual reality, fooling all our senses and tricking our mind completely.

Gazing into the crystal ball…

But supStrange_Days_movie_imagepose it were possible to bypass the senses entirely and inject VR scenarios directly into the mind? Sci-fi movies have already gone there, one example being Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 gem, Strange Days (with Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett and Vincent D’Onofrio). It has a device, the Superconducting Quantum Interference Device or SQUID (and the device looks like one too), which is used to record and replay sensations and experiences, including artificial ones.

The-MatrixOr the Wachowski brothers’ (now sisters) classic, The Matrix (1999, with Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss and Laurence Fishburne), in which farms of humans are made to inhabit a virtual reality (“the Matrix”) by an AI that has taken over the Earth.

Presently these are fictional technologies. Perhaps future science will catch up and enable completely virtual realities to be created and then projected directly in our minds.

There will be some of us who will prefer inhabiting those virtual realities – for entertainment certainly. But as has always been the case with new technologies, humans will always find other uses and abuses.

As for me, give me the red pill anytime!

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