I’ve been a longtime fanboy of virtual reality ever since the Oculus Rift Kickstarter made headlines in 2012. The success of that campaign, and the massive storm of positive PR that followed, has generated a previously unthinkable level of mainstream interest in the technology. Yes, Time Magazine’s now-notorious 2015 cover featuring Oculus Founder Palmer Luckey was undoubtedly goofy, but the fact of the matter is that virtual reality is at long last a worthwhile endeavor. The simplicity and clunkiness of the earlier View-Masters and Virtual Boys are now confined to the past, and there now seems to be an exciting VR headline cropping up every few days. What’s more is the fact that we’re moving past simple video game applications, and instead towards new and exciting “VR experiences.” This is a rapidly emerging field, so it’s worthwhile to take a focused look at two different approaches to crafting virtual reality experiences.
Google Cardboard & The NYT: Tame, But Far From Lame
Returning home for Thanksgiving Break during one’s first semester of college is always an interesting experience, and for me that included having my first brush with a VR headset. Entering my bedroom, I found a small cardboard box sporting logos for The New York Times and General Electric just sitting on my desk. My parents, avid Times readers, had received one of the 1.3 million Google Cardboard devices that were mailed out to subscribers in the fall of 2015, and decided to leave it in my room without any surrounding pomp or circumstance. After I figured out how to fit my phone into the little compartment, I had a great deal of fun toying around with the device’s admittedly simplistic range of functionalities. For the next few months, one of my favorite party tricks was making my friends use the headset to watch 360-degree Youtube videos of Star Wars and Pacman, and almost all of them were impressed with the tiny device’s undeniable”neat factor.”
At the time I just wanted to have fun with my new toy, but I suppose I was also playing right into Google’s plan of introducing VR to the average consumer. Earlier this month, the tech giant announced that they have shipped over 10 million Cardboard headsets since the program launched in 2014. While free headsets from The Times account for approximately 1.6 million of these headsets, that still leaves a considerable number of units that were bought from Google directly via their online VR hub, which now stocks 15 different headsets ranging in price from $5 to $40.
Although Cardboard is intended to offer a very basic introduction on what virtual reality has to offer, Google is also doubling down on its low-fi VR ambitions with Daydream, a new headset which launched in November of last year. The $80 device only works with a select handful of Daydream-enabled Android smartphones, but its mere existence proves that Google is serious about delivering unique VR experiences to the mainstream for cheap (even if most of these experiences will just be 360-degree videos for now). The New York Times has been a major partner in these efforts, producing daily videos and high-quality documentaries within their NYT VR app, which is specifically designed with Cardboard and Daydream headsets in mind. This shows a huge degree of forwards-thinking from the print media stalwart, and I suspect that they’ll be reaping the benefits of this investment whenever VR completes its gradual transition into a mainstream media channel.
HTC Vive & BC’s JoyceStick: Seeing Truly Is Believing
On the other end of the VR market, we have the HTC Vive, an $800 computer-powered headset that is the result of a partnership between a consumer electronics company and an online video game developer/distributor. Released in April of last year, the Vive has quickly passed the Oculus Rift as the generally accepted industry leader, meaning this is the device that can deliver “the quintessential VR experience,” if there ever was such a thing in 2017. I could have guessed that the Vive would be the superior headset (the Rift is $300 cheaper, after all), but my friend Emaad tells me that the Vive is so above and beyond the competition that it’s the only headset he’ll even consider putting on these days. Emaad is a student here at BC, and is part of the class that’s turning James Joyce’s Ulysses into a VR experience. This considerable undertaking has already received a considerable amount of press (most recently through an article by the AP), and the team is traveling to Joyce’s native Dublin to demo their progress in June.
I actually have a few friends on the Joycestick development team, so I’ve been paying close
attention to the videos and updates that they’ve been posting to social media. The idea of recreating a narrative experience through virtual reality seems incredibly challenging, especially with a book as demanding as Ulysses. That’s why I was so excited a few weeks ago when Emaad invited me to come check out the team’s work at their offices in Cushing Hall (they have the old University Health Services hallway to themselves). He wouldn’t let me actually try out Joycestick (the team isn’t thrilled with its current state), so instead I played a few games and used the Google Earth VR application. Flying down to my hometown (and then “driving” from my house to the high school), I was completely blown away. I’ve watched many VR gameplay videos on Youtube, but you can’t truly appreciate the magic until you see it for yourself. This experience made me excited for the future of VR, not only for games and maps, but for the interactive experiences that defy our current-day labels and expectations.
While I ultimately believe that Augmented Reality will surpass VR in terms of usability, this past year has shown me that virtual reality is going to be a huge and important platform. Seeing older institutions like The New York Times and even Boston College throwing their support behind big VR projects is very exciting, and I can only wonder what the field will look like five years down the road. I know I skipped over the innovations that Facebook is pushing with their Oculus brand, and I’d love to discuss that in another blog post if you found this one interesting. Let me know if you’ve had any VR experiences of your own!