Virtual reality, seems to have made comeback, being touted as the next new thing (again). Facebook, HTC, Samsung, and silicon valley is diving in. And I’m also eager to see what’s potential might be, and how it has evolved from playing a quickly tired version of playing SecondLife with a VR set at the local science museum.
In Seattle at the EMP, I had an opportunity to experience a virtual reality demo of the Oculus Rift featuring a scene from Game of Thrones. Essentially, I was led into a booth that resembles Dr. Who’s TARDIS (Who knew they had such things in Westeros?), and don a pair of Princess-Leia-earbuns-like headphones along with bulging ski goggles that made my head a bit more top heavy to the point where I nearly smacked my head against the booth like a drunken barfly. If you owned a head as round as Jack’s of Jack-in-the-Box fame, mixed with the weight of the Buddha’s, you might also find it difficult to keep your balance. When the VR set switched on, nearly blinding me, my body tensed then steadied itself, looking forward to this new dawn of Storytelling.
What’s wonderful about story, and potentially VR, is that we get to dive into another person’s world, temporarily testing our own mettle, experiencing the thrill of triumphing over the worst their world can inflict. Story is a tensioned-filled, rollercoaster that we relish riding as it pushes and pulls our emotions to the max. That is the tool of Story. It’s virtual reality in its most basic form.
And a great story has resonance that touches our emotion-nerves that we experience in our lifetime in an efficient, and often portable and repeatable, form. Story is itself one the greatest technologies invented by man.
When we walk out of movie theater adjusting to the reality and normality of life, our psyche still swims in the body of our protagonist, still walks amongst that atmospheric world. By tapping into our emotions, a story gets under our skin, and changes, perhaps only momentarily, the way we look at the world. As it should. In secret, or not, we want to be changed. And secretly, or not, we hope Stories will transform us. And, it can. This is the promise of a Story coupled by technology. We hope that story will dig deeper into our bones, and change our DNA.
Does VR do this?
Well, back in the Oculus Rift, I am in a wrought-iron elevator. The booth shakes as a heavy latch on screen clanks shut with nearly crash. I am supposedly locked inside, with no way out. A little claustrophobia, perhaps, creeps up my spine. The booth begins to rise, and I can feel air blowing against my hairy arms (Don’t worry I don’t have any on my back. Hair that is.). The effect does feel like I am being elevated, if I can stave off the knowledge that I am in a cheesy booth in the real world. “Looking” around me through the iron bars, I see an icy landscape of glaciers, snow-capped mountains, and frosted valleys. There is a feeling of vertigo, and said hairs began to stand on end. The elevator reached the top, and I see that I am on the huge ice wall. The gates open and “I” step out on a ledge. Suddenly, a ball of flame flies up from the valley and I instinctively moved my head. Before I knew it the screen teeters a bit, and I fall, supposedly indicated by the digital blur on screen.
Was this a transformative experience? Hmm. I guess. Do I need this? Hmm. As much as I need IMAX 3D. It’s fun, but it can be a little annoying.
In a recent interview with Tim Ferris, Morgan Spurlock of the amazing documentary Super Size Me suggests that VR could encourage more empathy. If this is true then it would touch on a key reason why we have, and need, Story at all. And if this is true, then let the flood gates open for this tech. At the same time, I think we need to be aware that ALL technology has the ability to increase empathy (Look at TV and the televised war of Vietnam), while at the same time be used to manipulate for the wrong reasons (Look at ISIS uses Youtube).
Technology is a tool, like fire, that has an enormous amount of promise and power, but can potentially be used against humanity. Story itself is the same. It is an innovation that can inspire, and manipulate in the same breath. Should we rid ourselves of Story and Technology? No. We just need to recognize its limits, and hopefully find ways to help us create community, thereby acknowledging our humanity, and sharing productive path towards future worth building that is respectful (to all).
Perhaps, this technology and Story can show us what we are doing to the environment in real time. I can imagine VR gamer playing a “game” harnessed to ocean swimming drone tasked to clean up our oceans. The creative non-fiction story of people dedicating their lives to clean oceans, as they gamers themselves rise in status of the most productive collectors of trash. Photos of unusual trash are rewarded to finders.
Well, who knows? I just hope that story and VR has a better future beyond using the Oculus Rift to play Minecraft all day.