Games, in many ways, can be a “gateway drug” to many things. But they’re just that; a gateway, a method of easing people into a much larger world with different uses. It could be argued that all those kids growing up with Atari 2600s and Nintendo Entertainment Systems got so comfortable with technology—and interacting with it—that they’re now the adults comfortably using smartphones and tablets without complaining about “newfangled machines and their complicated ways.” As hard as it may be for the average adult or child in 2014 to believe, there was a time when using a laptop or computer was strictly for “nerds” and people got beat up in school by the popular kids for being caught using technology. Times have changed, and Facebook is for everyone, even popular people.
The same can be said for other emerging technologies like motion detection and virtual reality. While Kinect, for example, tried—and failed—to convince us a few years ago that “You are the controller,” it’s proven to have many uses beyond checking out virtual cars and shouting out squad mate commands to toss grenades. Museums and even hospitals have found uses for Kinect ranging from the clever, such as interactive museum displays, to the life saving, with new medical imaging techniques that are risk-free from contamination. Virtual reality is much the same thing. It may start with something “harmless” and “fun” such as Valkyrie, the space combat flight simulator, but the Norwegian army is already—quite publicly—experimenting with Oculus Rift units as “virtual windows” for tank operators, so they have a clear field of view despite being surrounded by armour designed to repel light and medium artillery. This kind of unimpeded view was already teased as far back as the 1970s and 80s with Mobile Suit and Zeta Gundam’s mono-eye and panoramic cockpit concepts that postulated a world where people no longer needed clear, glass cockpits for line of sight combat, but relied on cameras to virtually reconstruct the view around them while they remained in the safety of a heavily armoured combat machine.
That’s not to say that the best applications for VR are military, though, to be fair the military is the fastest track around for accelerating a technology to more useful applications. The commercial prospects of VR are just as important—if not more so—than its potential as a combat enhancement. One of the most obvious uses of VR is for tourism/architecture purposes. The “presence” that Sony was repeatedly stressing as the killer app of VR is the sensation of “You are really there.” We’ve seen this already in things like the adorable YouTube video of a grandmother visiting a Tuscan villa in Oculus Rift, to the positive raves of journalists who have tried space combat simulator Valkyrie that gives a greater sensation of being in the cockpit than any simulator thus far. In architecture, this aspect becomes even more useful. In the same way that looking at an architect’s sketch of a building interior puts viewers at a remove, it’s only a marginal improvement when viewing a 3D simulation on a monitor. However, putting on a VR headset completely encloses the viewer within the proposed environment, getting a much better sense of scale—and a human’s place in it—than a monitor showing a first person view could ever communicate.
This translates into other areas, such as teleconferencing, and even shopping, where the fabled “virtual mall” that computers tried to simulate so many years ago could finally have a place. Seeing a picture of a car, or a new set of clothing is one thing. Walking around the car, getting into it, or trying on the new clothes and seeing how they look on a virtual representation of yourself is a very different thing.
VR starting with games is a good place. Early adopters will evangelize, they will show off the tech to their friends and gradually awareness will trickle down. By the time VR becomes more commonplace, people will already be familiar with it via adventure/FPS/MMO games and likely social networking options such as the inevitable Facebook integration.