This past weekend Rob and I attended Virtual Reality Los Angeles’ Summer Expo in downtown LA. We first attended a VRLA meetup in 2014, and each successive event has dwarfed the previous one. This summer’s VRLA was so large that it needed to be held in the Convention Center.
Virtual reality has been gaining a lot of attention in the news lately (this Time Magazine cover is hilarious), but for those who haven’t read up on VR yet here’s a quick overview. Have you every played a video game like Halo or Mario Kart? In those games you use a handheld controller to move a character through a virtual world. In Halo you control a soldier walking through an alien world. In Mario Kart you control a little Italian man driving an adorable go-kart around a track. What if instead of just controlling the character on your screen you could actually feel like you are the character and you’re inside of their virtual world?
That’s the promise of virtual reality, and it’s accomplished by donning a goofy plastic headset. It feels like a pair of oversized ski-goggles but instead of looking out into the real world you’re looking at a big computer screen that fills your entire vision. It’s like looking at a video game on a big-screen television from two feet away. The magic begins when you turn your head: you are able to look around the virtual world just like you can look around the real world. When you tilt your head down you see the ground. When you look up you see the sky. This sounds very simple, but the effect is extraordinary. You really feel like you have been transported to a different place. The physical sensation of being in the virtual world is so strong that if you look over the edge of a cliff in the virtual world you will probably get sweaty hands, your heart will start racing, and you will feel vertigo.
All of this makes for an amazing video game experience. But the reason we were at VRLA is that we see virtual reality as a potent tool for visually communicating complex ideas. Do you remember The Magic School Bus? Teacher Ms. Frizzle would take her schoolchildren on field trips through the rainforest, or outside the solar system, or inside the human body all with the help of a magic bus. We see the opportunity for VR to create these magical types of educational experiences. From exploring the inside of a living cell to walking on the surface of the moon, in the future we won’t just read about these things–we’ll experience them for ourselves.