NZ forging ahead in VR

Virtual Reality is part of life in NZ now. Justin Brown looks for the utility as well as the luxury

I bought some new glasses recently. They cost me $150 and did nothing for my eyesight. But they did allow me to face an insanely quick bowler at the Basin Reserve, and feel as if I was about to be squashed by a thundering Scout Walker from Star Wars.

Virtual Reality is the current favourite child of the tech world. Unlike traditional user interfaces, VR places the user inside an experience. The Scout Walker, for example, made by Sam Ramlu and the team at Auckland’s Method Studios, is a spinetingler. I felt like a kid, half expecting Luke Skywalker to jump out of the nearby X-Wing Fighter any second.

"We can bring to life unique experiences and ideas that sometimes just swim in your head," says Sam. "We can make real worlds that you’ve only ever imagined."

The industry is buzzing with possibilities, the likes of which we’ve only seen in sci-fi flicks, but with so many devices demanding our attention, do we really need to add to the pile?

Do we need VR? Will it make life better?

Let's start with why the favourite child might endure a rocky road. The headsets can be uncomfortable, the viewing experience can be isolating, and a roller coaster, or any experience where you fall, dive or move too fast, can induce motion sickness.

I felt my own glasses weren’t showing the full picture. Then Daniel Crayford from Verso VR at the AR/VR Garage introduced me to the world of Google Earth. I tried on his VIVE headset. Within seconds the old dunger became a Mercedes. Google Earth made Maps look like a faded newspaper. I was a giant! I walked down my own street wanting to pick up cars and buildings. Trees looked like stalks of broccoli. It felt goddamn glorious.

One of Verso’s current projects is a sports training simulator called Cricket Club, a game where you physically wield a real cricket bat and face deliveries from some the best bowlers from cricketing history. You can practice at the Basin Reserve, for example, and dial in just the right amount or speed, spin and length you need to make it challenging.

"You simply can’t do that in the real world," says Daniel.

The best VR experiences, like great cinema, must have emotion, a story.

The gimmick of 3D doesn’t cut it anymore. Send us somewhere unbelievable. Make us forget where we are.

There are the darling stories of VR. Displaced will move you, Henry the Hedgehog will make your toddler laugh and The Killing Floor may force you to watch Love Actually directly after.

A good story needn’t be fiction. Staples VR’s recent project Escape My House, a VR experience designed to show people how fast a house fire can take over, is proof the educational, health, and empathetic benefits of VR are ripe for exploring further.

‘There is no one we’ve spoken to who hasn’t been able to use VR in some way,’ says Aliesha of Staples. "In the beginning we used to shoot in 360° for the sake of it, but then we started thinking, how could we use VR to save lives, or improve the quality of life?"

Daniel at Verso: "The reason VR really matters is economic – it can help people learn, understand, and overcome more efficiently. By being fully immersed in a virtual world that mimics the real one, people are able to learn more effectively acclimatise to stressful situations, and overcome phobias."

Once you understand the possibilities of VR the ideas are limitless. Recently, while out running I thought how incredible it would be to have a virtual trainer barking instructions alongside me.

Keep up, it’s already been done.

Joe Chang’s ARX invention adds graphics to the real world of the user, immersing them in a game world while they exercise. In other words, you’re tricked into getting fit - and who doesn’t need that? "The gym can be a joyless torture," says Joe. "But what if we could transform the entire experience into a fun game?"

As for everyday use, VR could be a gamechanger. What better way to learn about history than to become part of it? Take real estate. Imagine being able to look at where the sun falls in a house before you buy. Or checking out a hotel before you make the mistake of booking the crappiest room.

Sam from Method Studios says, "VR gives us a glimpse into someone else’s life, to be in someone else’s shoes. We can now start to get a sense of someone’s emotions, their joy, and their demons. Education is an obvious one, but it goes beyond day-to-day learning. We can show our kids what it feels like to be bullied and teach them against such negative actions. We can show adults what depression can look and feel like to someone, in turn encouraging them to be more open. It’s a whole new way of seeing the world."

Now, about those dorky glasses.

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