If there’s one word that has come to define the promise of virtual reality, it’s “immersion.” Talk to any VR creator and the term is likely to come up. It’s understandable — after all, the chance to be transported away from our physical world into a virtual one is the ultimate potential of the medium. But the truth is, we’re still some ways from the OASIS in Ready Player One. In VR’s current state, “immersion” really means “visual immersion,” and there remains a gap between what VR can do and what it could do. Some, however, are building an unexpected bridge between those two points, and they’re doing so with an unexpected belief: in order to create an immersive virtual experience, you have to keep it rooted in the physical world.
Why Visual Immersion Isn’t Enough
“There are basically two approaches to VR, and they do opposite things,” says Adi Robertson, a tech journalist who frequently covers virtual reality for The Verge. “There’s the approach where you’re sitting still and your mind is simulating VR, and that’s how it makes you feel like you’re in another place. Then there’s the version where you’re trying to get your outside conditions to replicate the place that your body’s in as closely as possible, and get your body doing as close to the actual real thing as possible.”
It’s that second approach that some believe is the way to realize the potential of VR at a stage when it’s still far from seeming truly “real.” It can’t hack your senses like The Matrix — only your eyes, and that only does so much. “People very blithely talk about video immersion as if it’s interchangeable with reality,” Robertson says. “The fact that we consider ourselves so easily fooled that just looking at the thing is the same as the thing being real just seems ludicrous.”
Thankfully, some have accepted that. “It seems as though there’s a more realistic acceptance of VR’s current limitations. I think that makes it much easier to talk about the things that are good about VR,” says Robertson. It’s also made it easier to embrace ways to make VR more immersive with what can be done now. The result is creators like John Bolton and George Burger.
How to Make the Virtual World Better with the Real One
John Bolton is a Senior Developer at Globacore, an interactive experience company that has created several VR experiences that use reality to enhance virtual experiences — specifically by creating VR content with one-to-one relationships with real physical objects and movements. In Paperdude VR, an update of the classic video game Paperboy, you pedal a real life bicycle that’s then mirrored in the VR game.
Or take Escape the Tomb VR, an Indiana Jones-style adventure where you carry a lantern and try to escape a Mayan tomb by solving puzzles with idols. All the objects you interact with in VR — the lantern, the idols, and even the room — exist in the real world, with the exact same physical appearance and dimensions (created by a prop designer). That’s because of how much Globacore has realized touch can enhance immersion – the closer the one-to-one relationship is, the better. “You can pick up a coffee cup, and it can show up as a golden statue in your view, but it’s not quite the same as actually feeling the contours and the shape.”
In other words, to make VR objects feel real, you have to give audiences something real. (Touch, incidentally, is what Robertson considers “one of the linchpins of immersion.”) Asked what the goal is, Bolton responds, “What we’re hoping to do by tying it to the physical world is actually increase that immersion, by trying to mimic how you feel just walking around on a day-to-day basis and the way you interact with objects.”
They’re not alone. Others are also working on creating a walking VR experience that better mimics a real one — something VR desperately needs, because one of its immersive limitations is that, unlike the real world, you can’t just walk anywhere you want. Many current VR experiences put you in a stationary position, or make it difficult for you to walk a few steps without an accidental collision with a wall. It’s difficult to feel immersed in another (virtual) world, if you know you can’t explore more than five steps in any direction.
George Burger is looking to solve that hurdle with Infinadeck, which you could describe as an uber-treadmill: it’s a multi-directional belt that allows you to walk in any direction you like, and responds to your shifts in under 20 milliseconds. Want to explore vast landscapes like in open-world video games like The Witcher 3 or jog for six miles while being chased by zombies? Infinadeck could make that possible. Every step you take on it powers a step in virtual reality – enhancing your feeling of motion in the illusionary world. That’s a feeling Burger aspired to with the same goal shared by many who are looking to make VR better now. “The more immersed you are with all of your senses, the more real it becomes,” says Burger, which may as well be the mission statement for those like him.
The Future of VR Will Remain Physical
Robertson, Bolton, and Burger aren’t the only ones who believe VR immersion needs to do better. A cottage industry is budding around finding ways to incorporate our real world senses to improve virtual-reality experiences. A company called FeelReal has created a mask that generates odors; an initiative called Project Nourished is aspiring to simulate eating; and last year, Facebook (for Oculus) acquired a company called Two Big Ears that specializes in spatial sound.
Time will tell how successfully companies like these, and others, will be in helping fulfill the immersive promise of VR – or what else may emerge to do so. Burger, for one, isn’t convinced VR should ever reach the state where your body is immobile while your VR self isn’t. “You have to move to move,” he says. “You need more than just passively being in it.” Anything else risks getting old fast. Bolton, on the other hand, is more optimistic that the waiting game for technology to catch up will happen and pay off. “I feel that, as that technology continues to move forward, you can simulate more of your senses, rather than just visual.”
Until then, it seems those who will do most for VR immersion are those like Burger and Bolton and their respective companies, even if it might not always be easy. “There’s a tricky balance of trying to bring the aspects of the physical world into VR and art to make people forget they’re actually in the physical world,” explains Bolton. But for the foreseeable future, it may be those who navigate that balance who will bring VR (in its current state) closer to its potential, one literal step at a time.
Top Image: Scene from “Escape the Tomb,” courtesy of Globacore