As I have written about for many years and especially in the dumpster fire of 2020 Virtual Reality offers us the potential for truly rich and engaging experiences. It does not have to be over the top other world extravagance either, it can be applied to experiences where it can add that special something. This month I want to highlight a couple of these that, even for an old VR veteran, like myself, made me just sit and say wow!

Flying gets an upgrade

I have written about how intriguing Microsoft Flight Simulator has been, with its full digital twin of the Earth, its towns, cities, mountains and even the weather. It was initially released to standard flat screen PC users. With a good gaming rig the fidelity of the images and the quality of the flying models is a wonderful use of technology. I have been using it as a break between meetings as a commute to a different part of the world. Not always full flights but just a change of scenery from the office window and the video chats. I found, just as in virtual worlds, that it became a mental bookmark for some work meetings afterwards, the briefing I had just after flying over the space coast is indicated in my notes of that call and I remember what we talked about more due to the differentiation of location I experienced. That may not work for everybody, but it is doing no harm to try these things. The cockpits in the application are incredibly detailed too and vary greatly from jumbo jets to stunt planes, so they provide another layer of personal memory too. I had started to use an application called Opentrack that pairs with the phone camera and tracks head movements to be applied into the view of an applications like Flight Sim. It means a subtle move of the head moves the flat screen view a little.

It is a VR lite approach as obviously if you turn your head too much you cannot see the screen. It did make a difference though to the feel of the being there. Just before Christmas the long-awaited official patch appeared to upgrade Microsoft Flight Sim 2020 to VR. I had imagined what this would be like, but when I put on my headset straight into a small turbo plane already in the air, I was totally surprised by it. It was the cockpit dials, switches and pedals that first made the impact, the subtle drop shadows and the movement of the readings where wonderful. Then I looked out of the side of the cockpit down the ground a few hundred meters and I was definitely flying. I tinkered with a few settings to optimize for my machine and then went on a 3-hour flight up near Alaska. I can still see and feel that flight, it happened. Many VR experiences work because they hit you with tense moments, taking cover, spotting something behind you, cinematic storytelling to create an emotional response. This experience was just relaxing, with the joy of flying with the odd course correction and of course the slight “oh heck” of landing. I am looking forward for exploring more of the planet this way and I am grateful to have been able to feel this experience and escape 2020 for a little while.

More real than real life

Another VR experience that caught me by surprise was a more sociable one. As an industry analyst a lot of the year I would normally be at conferences more often than not standing on stage sharing insights with audiences. I enjoy presenting at any physical venue, there is a vibe and a buzz to it. Webinars on the other hand are live broadcasts but with very little to feed off as a presenter, these improve a bit as a panel, but presenting is not just about the broadcasting, but the sensing the room and learning from it. When I did kids TV on The Cool Stuff Collective, we had either the crew or an actual audience to engage with and whilst video chats appear to be a bit like TV, they are not, far from it because of this lack of empathy or engagement. I was asked by a company to share some industry perspective at an online event but this time in AltSpaceVR, which is a virtual world run by Microsoft that works both in VR and as a 2D app on PC/Tablet etc. Having presented a lot in Second Life and other virtual worlds over the past 14 years I was well up for giving it a go. I was also not going to miss trying it with a full VR rig. Like many events we had a get together to talk about it, a pre-meeting in the VR space, with the tech support there too. This was already looking and feeling really good, we looked around the spaces we would be presenting in, discussed a running order and generally chatted. It was collaborative, productive and mentally felt completely like a physical event. On the day we all gathered with the audience of journalist and social media influencers in a larger auditorium. We listened to a short opening welcome and keynote then headed off to our respective breakout sessions.

AltSpaceVR has a cartoon style to it in general, the avatars are customizable, but generally all the same size and shape. One of the key features in VR is the ability to detect hand movement by the user through controllers or cameras. This gives an immediate motion to VR based avatars. When it was my turn to talk, I moved from the side of the stage to the middle, passing my fellow speaker as they headed the other way, a small but truly relevant detail. I talked for my 10 mins waving my hands, looking with my head, moving around the stage looking at the audience reactions of the 30 or 40 in the room with us. Once all of us had talked it was question time, and that was very interactive. Even the part where we all wait for the other to answer out of politeness but then the moderator waves a digital hand towards one of use. Then the real magic moment happened, we finished, stepped off stage and each of us had a group of avatars, real people, approach us to ask questions and have a chat. This is always a really interesting part of any event. Not only can you hear your conversation, but you can hear the undertones of the others around you and this happened in AltSpaceVR too, this was, not top put too fine a point on it, joyous. When we had finally all finished talking and I returned home I reflected on how this event felt. It was so much better than many of the other ways we engage. I was using more of me as a person, physically and mentally and not leaving some things out because the technology as we do with PC video or phone calls. It was a live audience, a live event and a real thing to be remembered by where it was, who was there, where we stood or sat.

Contrasts

There are many more examples of the impact VR has, the isolation and lockdown amplify the difference between our static online approaches and this. It is not perfect, not for every situation but as you can see from a single escapist enjoyable experience in flight, with a relaxing mental freshness to it, to a full-on serious work presentation, there flying on adrenalin, it works. VR is not one type of thing, it spans genres and applications and is probably the closest we get to in depth experiences without a direct neural connection, but that’s on its way, eventually.