People often ask me why I decided to study human-computer interaction after a long career in journalism and media. For me, it’s primarily because of the chance to be on the frontlines of tech innovation and explore the different ways that computing in its current forms — social, ubiquitous and immersive — are impacting media, the law and our society.
But I also regularly get the chance to play with toys, like the new Samsung Gear VR (see below), that make grown and otherwise serious adults go “Whoa! That’s so cool!” This device is posed to deliver the cutting-edge tech I see everyday at my university to a wider audience — and in a fashion that also dovetails with the current tech megatrend that is the shift to mobile.
Since the 2007 debut of the iPhone, mobile technology has been slowly gobbling up the entire media landscape. When I was at IndyStar.com, we watched that share of all online readership vs. that on desktop or tablet climb to close to half of all audience on some days — and if comScore and other tracking data can be believed, that trend has only accelerated across the board, as more people came to depend on the pocket-sized computer that they could carry everywhere and get online with anywhere. And now we also buy and use many other Internet-connected computers such as fitness trackers, touch-enabled museum displays or digital thermostats that barely anyone dreamed of in the heyday of mainframes and desktops. Computing has truly become ubiquitous.
In the last few years, another wave started building that seemed almost anti-mobile — renewed enthusiasm for virtual reality (VR), driven by Palmer Luckey and his Oculus Rift headset and software technology. VR and its cousin, augmented reality (AR), are aimed at immersing you in a different reality than the one you currently occupy at this moment in time and space. Facebook bought Oculus in 2015, betting on his new spin on VR to the tune of $2 billion.
Luckey was able to build his prototype technology in his parents’ Long Beach, Calif., garage as an 18-year-old inventor partly because there’s ultimately not much to VR gear beyond two stereoscopic lenses for your eyes and a frame to keep them anchored to your face — really just a movie theater’s 3D glasses on steroids — as long as you have another device providing the split-screen video stream for it. And finally, when he was debuting his first Oculus headset in 2011, there was another such device already handy — the smartphone.
Google smartly saw an opportunity to jump ahead of Apple in the race for mobile buzz and debuted their own stripped-down VR viewer composed just of the low-cost lenses in a prefab frame made out of cardboard or stiff paper, called, appropriately, Google Cardboard. It works with an iPhone or any other mobile phone that you can snap into it — including, conveniently, the emerging line of Android operating system-powered smartphone competitors from the likes of LG, HTC and Samsung.
The above is also a long way around to talking about the latest product I’ve seen that will be a huge step forward for immersive tech in general and a nice middle-market alternative to the above — the abovementioned Samsung Gear VR.
First, it’s about as lightweight as Cardboard but a little sturdier, since it’s made of plastic instead of, you know, cardboard. Second, it feels a lot more immersive than that reader because of the foam edge where the plastic case fits around your eyes, blocking out any peripheral light, and the sturdy strap for your head. Third, its VR video is actually powered by Oculus software. This means partly that navigation inside the VR apps rely on eye tracking to some degree (you stare at a menu item on the screen to select it, though you can also tap exterior buttons on the case with your fingers). The chief benefit, though, is that you’re getting substantially the same quality of VR video as with the Rift headset itself, but at a fraction of the price — $100 for the Gear VR vs. $599 for the basic model Oculus Rift.
The main downsides to the Gear VR are first, that it only works with certain Samsung Gear phone models that are sized for its plastic case. I tried it out with a Samsung Edge 7, the most advanced of these models. But, if you are in the market for a new smartphone anyway, this is also kind of an upside, because the Edge is a superb piece of technology in its own right. I am getting by right now with a creaky old iPhone 4S, so perhaps I am easily seduced, since almost anything will look better by comparison. My friends carrying a new Edge 7, though, tell me that they also love its rounded edge and crisp graphics and photo quality.
Second, they just can’t make enough of them fast enough, so you’ll have to wait for the back orders to clear. A friend who tried out the Gear VR with me and promptly ordered one for her husband is dealing now with a very impatient man in her household.
When I first put on a Samsung Gear VR at a Facebook event last fall — since they license Oculus software to Samsung, they’re more a frenemy than competitor — I was immediately struck by the quality of the VR experience. For that demo, I watched — really, felt like I was present and walking around in — a documentary about life in a Syrian refugee camp, shot with 360-degree cameras. Unlike with previous attempts at VR, I didn’t feel sick to my stomach or otherwise disoriented at being a disembodied pair of eyes floating above ground. Maybe IMAX has finally accustomed people like me to the sensation of surround 3D video?
VR has a lot of potential for various industries. Obviously there are applications for journalism and for storytelling in general, but I can see it being useful for many others: tourism, real estate, interior design, therapy and counseling, education, retail, sports and gaming (and of course, the No. 1 application for any new technology: porn). I just saw dozens of realistic and fantasy environments created for virtual reality during the Capstone student project presentations today at my School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. They’d all look great on a Samsung Gear VR.
The most important question I asked myself when I got to take one home for a review was: Would I really use this in my real life outside of research? I think so, though it will not be the utility player in my every waking hour that my smartphone has proved to be. I found myself picking up the Gear VR much as I do my iPad or Kindle — as a way to blow off steam with a quick escape from my deadlines and housework. I was also surprised at how social it can be, maybe because it’s a novelty right now, though I think throwing a “VR party” won’t be a completely silly idea in the future. When I carried it in my purse to gatherings with friends, we all had fun trying it out and experiencing the initial shock of turning around while wearing the headset to find we’re turning around in our VR environment too. “Whoa! That’s cool!”