Innovation | The Virtual Reality Takeover

Virtual reality has well and truly hit its tipping point. Digital Consultancy firm KZero Worldswide concluded that the consumer virtual reality market will be worth $5.2bn dollars by 2018 – but it isn’t just the gaming world that wants a piece of the action. Oculus, the startup that raised nearly $2.5 million from their Kickstarter campaign back in 2012 has made big moves in bringing virtual reality to the masses with its Rift headset and in March 2014, was bought by Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO gave his reasoning for the purchase because he saw an opportunity for virtual reality to transcend gaming to become a new communications platform.

“After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home.”

– Mark Zuckerberg, blog post, Facebook, March 2014

Which begs the question – what experiences is virtual reality currently changing?

Lets start with the Future Fashion Spring/Summer 2015 event, recently held at both Westfield shopping centres in London (because, lets be honest – what could be more mainstream than Westfield). The Future Fashion event was held in the middle of the shopping centre where people were invited to explore the spring/summer 2015 trends through various digital experiences. Amongst these were virtual reality stations hosted and created by digital agency Inition (also the people behind Gareth Pugh at Selfridges and Topshop Unique Backstage Catwalk Show). When wearing the Oculus Rift headset, participants got to move through and experience three ‘worlds’ according to each fashion trend of the season: Denim, Floral and Future Modern. Using gesture tracking technology (basically a little camera at the front that reads your hand gestures and includes them into the digital sphere), the experience allowed you to just clap to move through these different worlds. I got the chance to have a go at it and my favourite was the Floral world, because it was the first time that I had experienced virtual reality with a floor – it may sound silly but it truly gave it a different edge.

Virtual reality is like being inside a game – but without seeing the edge of your TV or your cat chewing through a packet of Dreamies in your peripheral vision. As mentioned before, what was crucial about the Floral ‘world’ at Future Fashion was because they created the environment with a floor – and gave the participant the idea that they had their feet firmly on the ground. Maybe a sense of gravity is all you need to elevate the virtual experience?

There has also been more moves to find ways of grounding virtual reality. One of the major pitfalls of VR experiences is that they can often trigger motion sickness because the signals between a persons eyes and ears are conflicted, and in turn their brain cannot work out whether their body is moving or not. Computer graphics researchers at Purdue University in Indiana found that simulator sickness is less likely when there is a point of reference in view – found in driving or flying VR games because the players normally direct through a cockpit. But not all VR games can have a cockpit in them so they found a better way of tackling this – by adding the tip of a nose.

“You are constantly seeing your own nose. You tune it out, but it’s still there, perhaps giving you a frame of reference to help ground you.”

– David Wittinghill, assistant professor at the Purdue University’s department of computer graphics technology

Virtual reality games often cause simulator sickness – inducing vertigo and sometimes nausea - but new research findings point to a potential strategy to ease the affliction: insert an image of a virtual human nose, or
Virtual reality games often cause simulator sickness – inducing vertigo and sometimes nausea – but new research findings point to a potential strategy to ease the affliction: insert an image of a virtual human nose, or “nasum virtualis,” into the center of the video display. This screenshot is from one application where the user rides a roller coaster. Findings suggest the virtual nose reduces simulator sickness. (Purdue University image)

Another interesting development in virtual reality is with food. CyberCook Taster uses the Samsung Gear VR (another VR headset to rival the Oculus Rift and one of several that are competing for this $7 billion market) to teach people how to cook. Created by digital technology studio Starship, CyberCook Taster is the world’s first cooking simulation. This is a far better way of learning to create that signature dish then (unsuccessfully) trying to follow a recipe from Love and Olive Oil.

 “As well as offering an engrossing experience, CyberCook dispels the fear of experimenting in the kitchen. You’re involved with every stage of the cookery process. Why learn from a video when you can practice hands-on and without a single bit of waste?”

– Starship CEO Martin Kenwright, Press Release, Feb 2015 

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I know I could certainly do with some practice. I would love to see TV show Come Dine With Me use this – or even host their own! The possibilities are endless.

But there is another project that really heightens the relationship between virtual reality and food. Project Nourished is a gastronimical culinary experience in virtual reality with the tag line “eat anything you want without regret”. Set to launch in autumn this year, the project was inspired by the film Hook, where Peter Pan imagines food on a table that starts off empty. Using this idea, the project allows the participant to ‘eat’ anything they want without consequence – whether because of its calorific intake or eating foods that they may be allergic to. Created by the experience designer and founder of La-based thinktank Kokiri Lab, Jinsoo An said:

 “In the fall of 2014, a group of our friends got together for dinner and started to joke around with the idea of recreating Peter Pan’s imaginary dinner table. A few days later, I saw my step dad looking pretty grim after not being able to eat the foods that he used to enjoy – due to diabetes…I then asked myself, ‘Would it be possible to imagine having a feast just like Peter Pan did without really eating?’”

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The experience works by tricking the senses using cutlery that have built in sensors, aromatic diffusers to mimic the smell, Oculus Rift headset to aid the visual and low-calorie foods (gums and polymers) that mimic the taste of the real thing. The experience also allows you to choose the environment – eat in the middle of a desert or on the busy streets of Tokyo. By aligning all the sensory elements – visual, taste, smell, texture and sound, the experience tricks the brain into feeling nourished. Jinsoo An wants to further the project by giving people the access to 3D print the gums and polymers at home with a menu and products available through online retailers as downloadable files and refillable cartridges. Imagine what it could do as a solution for lowering levels of obesity in the Western world – or even if it was used as a way of helping smokers curb the cravings and cut the habit without actually smoking?

And as if the Oculus Rift headset wasn’t heavy enough, smellovision capabilities for virtual reality are already here. FeelReal’s mask is a product that aids the multi-sensory aspect of virtual reality by attaching itself to an existing headset. There are transmitters that can help enhance scenes and provide real environmental sensations, like being in a windstorm or the smell of a swamp. They achieve this through micro coolers and micro heaters that blow air on your face, odour generators (with refillable smell cartridges) and water misters to give a sense of humidity. The FeelReal mask currently has four sensory packages: smell of the jungle, smell of the ocean, smell of the fire and smell of the wind.

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These are just a few of the examples that are driving the virtual reality market and there seems to something for everyone. For the artists – fancy a view around a Van Gogh? Sure. Automotive fans – wanna see the Chrysler 200 made from start to finish? You certainly can. Film buffs – fancy starring in your own horror film? Absolutely (American Horror Story – Season 2 Asylum – eat your heart out).

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All these developments can be inklings to the sort of experiences we already have that could be revolutionised – imagine going round a museum in virtual reality? (Night at the Museum anyone?!) First we have Van Gogh but what about seeing the Mona Lisa? (God knows it’s hard enough to get close to at the Louvre.) Or how Chrysler wants to change the way you research and buy a car – you would never have to visit a showroom again. Or film – is just watching a screen too passive for our future selves? As a self-professed horror movie buff, would the only way to pass my high fear tolerance be to put myself (virtually) in the movie? And the sector that could potentially have the most success with virtual reality? Porn. But that’s a whole other topic.

I’d like to end this post with one of my favourite examples – The Void, which will be the world’s first virtual reality theme park not just using headsets but also motion tracking technology and will be an experience that will truly merge virtual reality with the physical world. It opens June 2016 in Utah. Anyone fancy joining me? I hear it’s going to be out of this world.

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