Mind the Reality Gap
Critics are exceptionally willing to point out that Virtual Reality is an immersive experience in so far as it becomes a wedge between the user and all external stimuli. And they have a point; the entire field of vision is taken over, sound blocking headphones cup the ears, and increasingly haptic devices give feedback to each body part that’s covered with skin.
However, as much as it can be argued VR extracts the user from external stimuli of their immediate surroundings, how effective is it as a tool to insert the user in alternative realities that would otherwise be inaccessible to them?
High-end VR has struck a middle ground with regard to accessibility, being widely available for purchase but just beyond most people’s reach financially. This disparity between the demand for VR experiences and their affordability for mid-to-low-income consumers has left a gap that some peddlers of leisure activities are happy to fill. News frequently pops up of venues publicly offering the VR experience for an admission fee. I’ve previously written about VR cinemas, but the technology is appearing also in several amusement sites that are typically associated with a family/tourist-friendly day out.
One experience is the VRZoo at the Dubai Acquarium (UAE), which will give patrons the chance to visit, for example, pristine Ugandan forests to stand among a family of highly endangered gorillas. This allows people to see the animals up close instead of behind a plate of plexiglass. The experience is curated to be engaging for the audience, so patrons avoid the more likely scenario of a brick-and-mortar zoo, sweating in the hot sun as animals take a day-long nap. VR Zoos may not be entirely comparable to living versions as a means of connecting with nature, but they neatly remove the unease that some people feel about zoos while retaining the education and admiration of nature they’re meant to instill. Families and travel companions are also able to connect through the experience of being swept away in that 360 environment.
Seaworld is introducing at least one VR attraction to their park as an enhancement to their nautically themed roller coaster. They — more than most— have been guilty of callous physical and psychological abuse towards animals, and using this new technology as a harmless means of celebrating underwater life is a step in the right direction. It’s a positive sign that such organizations are responding to public outcry against cruelty by building attractions that will bring audiences together without hurting the performers.
Sequencing the actions of a roller coasters with the riders’ VR screen was also done as a members-only event called Rage of the Gargoyles at Six Flags Theme Park in Georgia at last year. In addition, Universal Studios experimented with the VR platform during the Halloween season to mixed results. Like the traditional haunted house, it was designed to bring small groups into tight corridors, where they might bond through having a good scare.
If these attractions and others like it are too distant or currently out of season, mobile VR is well suited for watching video, which is quickly amassing 360 content. Many 360 cameras are headed to the world’s wonders, so we might appreciate their natural beauty from the comfort of the urban crypts we call home. The most widely publicized video came from Yosemite National Park, which was presented by then-President Obama. But even a cursory internet search will give you VR videos of nature’s splendor. For starts, Youtube’s Virtual Reality Channel has a playlist called Explore Your World made especially for indoor-outdoors lovers.
As Virtual Reality sheds its wires and lingering anti-technological prejudice, it is appearing in more contexts and on the heads of more people. VR can be a platform through which people connect to one another and traverse geographical distances or an instrument of escapism and ultimately isolation. You have the power, so use it well.