Until a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t really know much about Virtual Reality (VR) at all, beyond the idea that there are headsets out there. However, the last couple of weeks, virtual reality seems to have featured pretty heavily.
First, our lab group has a weekly meeting where we alternate talking about science with talking about our personal hobbies. One of the guys in the team gave a presentation on his virtual reality gaming set up. Man, this was intense. He has permanently sectioned off part of his lounge to act as his gaming space – a 4×3 m grid (roughly 14×10 ft). It involves a complex set up of cameras strung from his ceiling, and then the headset. He walked us through the pros and cons of a tethered headset vs untethered, the different types of handheld controllers and gloves, dealing with the screen door effect, the role of pixel size and a million other factors. I was surprised to find you can only play for an hour or so before the mask becomes unbearably sweaty. He showed us around a couple of his games. It seemed interesting but a little like the games were designed to showcase the technology rather than just use it as a function. A bit like some of the 3D movies that have extravagant swooping scenes.
Next, I was invited to attend a Medical Technology conference, where a whole session was dedicated to the use of VR in a medical setting. VR has had a really positive effect on preparing children for MRI by showing them what the experience will be like. Someone asked if the kids can use VR as a distraction during an MRI, but of course metal headsets and giant magnets don’t mix well. Another use of the technology is for people who have had spinal cord injuries. A home type environment is created and they use a specially built controller, similar to one found on a motorized wheelchair, to navigate around. The idea is that this technology will help the transition from hospital to home. There were some unexpected side effects of this system. Nearly all users reported vomiting or feeling nauseous. It turns out the sliding motion of the wheelchair in the VR is very disorienting and causes motion sickness. The signals from your eyes are giving opposite information to the systems used to balance your body. So clearly there is a way to go in improving the technology for this use.
So it’s rather fitting that the most recent book I’ve finished reading is Virtual Heaven by Taylor Kole (published 30 Nov 2017, 465 pages). This book explores the development of a virtual reality system. The main protagonist, Alex Cutler, is a programmer and later becomes an owner of this system called the Lobby. It’s a virtual reality world accessed by jacking in, in a style very reminiscent of The Matrix. There’s even a wee reference to Neo in there. Once in the virtual world, the person loses any limitations they have on Earth. At first this is just a single access point, basically a place for rich people to spend their holidays, but over time it is globalized. Problems start when a visitor dies whilst visiting the Lobby, but remains alive inside the Lobby. This news leaks to the public with devastating consequences.
What I really enjoyed about this book was seeing the development of the Lobby over time. New worlds to visit were added as the book progressed, and the function of the Lobby grew. Through the characters, the author explores some of the morality issues associated with the technology, and the possibility of it becoming an addiction, even before the complication of it becoming a “virtual heaven”. The conflict between the characters on how to overcome the issue of the death in the Lobby seemed completely believable, as did the government intervention. I don’t want to give too much away, but I was rather surprised by the turn of events in the last couple of chapters, and safe to say, I didn’t see it ending the way it did.
It will be interesting to see how virtual reality technology develops over the next couple of years, and whether it makes the jump from being predominately a gaming tool to something with much wider use.