Virtual reality has been the subject of as much hype as any new technology. That it’s slowly coming into the hands of consumers in the form of the Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, and the most recent promised device, the Magic Leap, hasn’t change the confusion that surrounds it. Sure, these bulky helmets give us a simulation of three-dimensional space directly to our eyeballs. But then what?
What virtual reality needs to make it feel, well, real at this point is not new helmets, new screens, and higher resolution. Rather, the medium needs compelling experiences that make a case for why it’s unique and important. The people who are going to make the first acclaimed works of virtual reality aren’t Google engineers, but novelists, artists, and designers ready to work in multimedia.
After canvassing a group of such thinkers for their ideas on the future of virtual reality, it became clear that the medium has a few specific deficiencies. Among those involved most in the medium’s evolution, there’s an emphasis on the need for a new kind of thinking about digital space, the necessity of role-playing in virtual environments, and the importance of having a message—often activist—behind their work.
“There are colors we haven’t yet discovered, forms we’ve never imagined, and sounds nobody has ever heard. All suddenly possible to truly experience through virtual reality.”
“As an architect, the idea of having the virtual tools to represent a fully immersive, strange, fantastic new world is, well, fantastic,” says Mark Foster Gage, an architect whose interdisciplinary work, including a retail space for Lady Gaga, often incorporates video projections. He outlines a hypothetical VR project that builds something entirely new—an illustration of H.P. Lovecraft’s story “Call of the Cthulhu” that takes place partly in an alternate dimension. “There are colors we haven’t yet discovered, forms we’ve never imagined, and sounds nobody has ever heard.” Gage says. “All suddenly possible to truly experience through virtual reality.”
Lizzie Stark is an expert on live-action role-playing (LARPing) and the author of the book Leaving Mundania. “LARP is an analog-style game; the point of it is to connect deeply with other people,” Stark says. The activity’s emphasis on storytelling and relationships could point out a future path for virtual reality beyond the pure technicalities of the device. “In LARPing, you have to incorporate the technology into the frame of the game,” she says.
Rather than conceiving of virtual reality experiences purely as mind-blowing technology, Stark suggests that VR become more human, “do interesting things with sound and ordinary objects” that change our perceptions of the world around us not completely but slightly. With VR, “you could run LARPs with higher production values,” Stark says. “It could be a game about the ’70s where, instead of some people go to a room to trip acid, and instead of giving them drugs, you use VR to produce an altered state.”
The cliché of VR is that it only works for brief, impactful experiences that we already recognize. Like the early projection films that scared 19th-century viewers into thinking a train was rushing at them, VR pieces often try to replicate a moment that might be frightening or exhilarating. But that might be the wrong approach to making the most out of virtual reality.
“The quiet uses of technology are sometimes more interesting than the loud, exciting ones,” video game designer and artist Zach Gage (no relation to the architect Gage) says. He sketches out a virtual experience much like real life, but intensified. “The most exciting thing to me about virtual reality is providing this way to leave a place,” he says. “I want to make a game where you put on a virtual reality headset and headphones and lie down on the floor. Suddenly, you’re lying in a field and looking up at the stars. People could put it on and lie there for an hour. This game is about letting you meditate and get lost.”
VR’s revolutionary ability is to present not just a static image or passively viewed film but a durational, interactive moment. “I love the fact that this is something that falls into a whole new discipline of creative control. It’s not really a game; it’s this weird hybrid,” says Mike Woods, the founder of the digital department at the creative studio Framestore, which did the CGI work on Gravity. “I love the idea that you’re transported and a narrative plays out around you, and you have the ability to alter that narrative.”
To the end, stories can create change. “Virtual reality should be used not to show us what we already know, but open new doors to new forms of consciousness and thinking,” Mark Foster Gage says. “It would be like a drug. It’s not for entertainment, but for freeing your mind.”
New virtual reality projects might build convincing narratives that shape our opinions on important contemporary issues, the way political novels or environmentalist documentaries already do. In fact, VR might end up critiquing the technology culture it comes from.
“There’s a lot of really scary stuff that’s happening with information technology and our personal data and security—Heartbleed, Optic Nerve, the Snowden leaks,” says artist James George, who co-founded the interactive technology studio Specular. “There’s the notion of being invaded, but it’s very hard to depict that reality in a visual way. I would create a virtual reality film that would give a more immediate sense of the vastness and implications of digital surveillance.”
By its very nature, cheap, accessible virtual reality will change how we perceive the world. And with these creators, we’ll soon be looking at not just roller coasters or first-person shooter video games, but everything differently. “VR can connect you in an immersive, intuitive way to a space that’s completely abstract—it’s fundamentally different than just a representation of something,” George says. “It starts to become a gateway.”
Disruptions is Kyle Chayka’s weekly column for Pacific Standard about personal technology and the way it influences our daily lives.