What’s the Big Deal with Virtual Reality?

There’s been a lot of touchy-feely stuff on the blog lately, so I’d like to mix it up and talk about something nerdy, theoretical, and of limited interest to most people. I’m going to try to answer the question, “why is virtual reality (VR) so important?”

VR has been in the news recently with the New York Times publishing its first bits of VR Journalism. The first consumer VR headsets are starting to go on sale, and if you’re even a little bit of a technology geek you are bound to have come across an article or two proclaiming that our virtual future is upon us. There’s  a lot of hype around virtual reality, and while some of it is overblown I do think that this technology (and its sibling, augmented reality) will dramatically change the way that we work with computers.

Virtual reality’s main strength is that it lets humans interact with the computer world in much the same way that we interact with the human world. What do I mean by that? Well, imagine you are living one hundred years ago. You walk into your office, sit down at your desk, and begin to sharpen your pencils to prepare for the day (or, I don’t know, ink your pen…just go with it). Your boss comes in and asks for that important contract you’ve been reviewing. You open the second drawer on the right, where you keep your most important documents. Ah, there it is, right where you left it last night. You hand your boss the contract, and go about your business.

Contrast that scenario with its modern-day equivalent. Your boss asks you to email him the latest draft of that contract. You think that you saved it to the network drive. You click your mouse to navigate to F:\ProjectFiles\Clients\2015\SandersAssoc\Contracts\Final_Version. It’s not there. Where did you save it? Maybe it’s in your Documents folder, or maybe on your Desktop, or in your DropBox folder. In any case, in order to work with a computer you have to think like a computer. Computers store data in abstract folder hierarchies. Humans store data in drawers.

Now, nobody wants to go back to the days of writing contracts by hand (or by typewriter). Modern computers have so many benefits that it’s worth it for us to put up with their computery-ness and learn how to speak their language. But what if we could have the best of both worlds? What if we could edit the contract in Microsoft Word and save it to “the shelf on my left”? With virtual reality you could create a virtual desk inside of a virtual office. You could look around this office and place your documents in drawers and on shelves. You could leave the most important ones right on top of your desk (your actual “desktop”) and put the less important documents in the filing cabinet behind you. Humans are much better at remembering where things are when “where” is an actual place and not an abstract concept like “C:\users\user07\Documents.”

This is just one example of how virtual reality could change the way we use computers. It’s certainly not the most interesting example, but the point that I want to make is that humans are really really good at operating in the real world. We use our five senses to gather and process an incredible amount of information every single second. The promise of virtual reality is that it will let us use our human skills and senses to experience the computer world in a much more natural and intuitive way.

In a future post I will talk about what VR means for teaching and education, which is where our company is focused. But I think it’s interesting to begin by looking at the broader landscape of human/computer interaction, and to think about how virtual reality might start to make actual reality a little easier.

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