The Uncanny Valley of VR

How the latest virtual reality tech is opening up a limitless, yet uncanny, world…

As the giant weta bore down on my ant-like size I had to scramble to resist the impulses racing in my mind by repeating a laughably cliché, “it’s not real, it’s not real”. Yet even as I mustered this self-control, the feelings welling up inside me suggested that the deeper layers of my brain were only barely convinced that death by monster insect was not imminent.

What struck me most about this Virtual Reality (VR) experience, set up for Unitec by Auckland advertising agency Republik in Auckland’s Takutai square last December, was not so much its convincing graphics, but that it was so immersive. It was hard to stay connected to the reality that I was actually just sitting in a glass-walled container in the middle of a public square, wearing a VR headset and earphones. That ‘real world’ memory felt tenuous. Unlike realistic animation on screen, in VR there’s full 3D depth to it and no real-world beyond the edges, so with your dominant senses fully immersed, it’s as though your brain becomes ‘wired in’ to the experience.

VR is not brand new, but it’s now taking-off as the hardware and software needed to deliver a compelling experience comes of age. The most obvious sign is the emergence of a new generation of affordable VR headsets from the likes of Oculus Rift, Sony, Fove, HTC and a host of others that, powered by the right device and software, are capable of delivering smooth 3D visuals that respond in orientation to a wearer’s head movement; in the case of the Fove VR, even to their eye movement as well.

The most readily available headsets at time of writing were the low-cost smartphone holders such as Google Cardboard – yes, largely made of cardboard – and Samsung’s Gear VR. These both work using apps that split a phone’s display into two side-by-side images which are then focused through lenses in the headset to produce a 3D view with genuine depth of field. Google Cardboard will work with most Android phones, whereas Gear VR requires a new top of the line Samsung phone. Though interesting for an initial taste of VR, and a great way to enjoy a ‘virtual cinema’ experience from your phone, these units are somewhat limited in power, accuracy of response to movement and user interaction. What will be worth waiting for is either ordering in an Oculus Rift headset online to use with a gaming spec PC, or hanging out for the release of upcoming gaming consoles like the PlayStation VR, expected late 2016. These kind of options will provide top-notch VR experiences, though obviously game-centred.

For business-related applications, regardless of the platform, custom development will usually be required, at least until off-the-shelf software catches up. VR looks like it could become common in areas like virtual ‘hands-on’ skills training, next gen video conferencing, experience marketing, architectural visualisation, immersive journalism – imagine the emotive impact of ‘being’ in Syria, the remote control of robots, discovery-based education, scientific modelling of microscopic manipulations, and so much more.

The most immediately evident of these is ‘experience marketing’; a great NZ example being last summer’s ‘Air New Zealand Flight Lab VR Experience’ at their 75 Years exhibition hosted by Te Papa and Auckland Museum. Set up in a mock cabin, this utilised Oculus Rift headsets run from PC’s with sound via cabin speakers. Though not super high-resolution it was an eye opener to some of the possibilities of inflight VR, such as a 360 degree camera driven look-around view unobstructed by the body of the aircraft. Also the rather cool concept of accessing tourism information by ‘going there’, which effectively demonstrated the ‘Matrix-like’ VR potential of changing-out scenes. Think of Morpheus pulling in the dojo scene, or Neo calling up that mind-boggling weapons selection out of nowhere.

Still, for now business uses are likely to pale in comparison to VR for entertainment; in particular 360 degree video (already supported by YouTube) and absolutely mind-blowing immersive 3D that will take gaming to scary new levels. Scary because, what will happen when virtual worlds become more appealing for many people than their real world? It’s only too easy to extrapolate from existing social issues like serious gaming addiction, men who are more attached to their Nintendo virtual girlfriends than their wives – see ‘No Sex Please We’re Japanese’ on Vimeo – and ‘life imitates art’ instances of violence and sexualisation copied from videos or games; not to mention a whole host of other disturbing psychological impacts of ‘screen time’ already becoming apparent. Now add VR to that. My experience is that going into VR feels quite magical; that something about reality falling away is enthralling, so it’s easy to imagine some people stepping out into virtual worlds and just not wanting to come back.

In 1970 Masahiro Mori coined the term ‘uncanny valley’ to describe our slight revulsion toward things that appear realistically human but are subtly not quite right. VR will take us into limitless imagined new worlds that feel realistic, yet there may also be unsettling implications. What does it mean that we’re heading into a paradigm where the entities of ‘I’ and ‘machine’ are about to become far less distinct? It certainly suggests a fundamental leap in human’s interaction with technology; but a leap to where? Themes like that of ‘The Matrix’ and ‘The Thirteenth Floor’ may have seemed far-fetched 17 years ago but, with 2016 looking like being the year of VR, it may also be time to start seriously questioning where tech is going. If nothing else, parents will probably need to add VR to their list of electronic entertainments to monitor carefully. For myself, while I'll definitely enjoy having a play with this rather fascinating tech, my main plan is to spend plenty of time in wilderness spaces, immersed in that 3D, multi-sensory, highly-realistic world we call Earth.

John Jones is the founder and managing director of Applicable, a sister company to Zeald specialising in building modern online applications, device apps, custom websites and other cool stuff.