VR Week: The wonderful loneliness of virtual reality

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What do you do when a friend puts on a virtual reality headset? Perhaps it’s not a situation you’ve encountered – most commercial VR kits, like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Playstation VR, aren’t yet on the market.

But I have, and I can tell you – it’s a bit awkward. You can stand and watch as your friend goes “ooh” and “aah”, which feels creepy because they don’t know you’re watching. Or you can go off and do something else and wait for them to be finished, which feels a bit like abandoning a baby.

“These headsets change the way you exist in the real world,” wrote Dieter Bohn in a recent review of the Avegant Glyph. “Somebody wearing one of these headsets is like an inverse ghost — the body is there, but the spirit has passed beyond.”

This is one of the biggest problems that VR is going to face when it arrives in the world’s living rooms. Unlike watching a movie, listening to music or playing a console game, where anyone else in the same room gets approximately the same experience, putting on a VR headset is isolating. Detached. Lonely.

But does that actually matter? Isolating yourself for entertainment purposes is nothing new. Headphones let us listen to music without the sound of the world outside intruding. For centuries, people have loved to curl up with a book. With so many demands on our time in modern life, the ability to escape has never been more important.

Social dynamics

“[Virtual reality] devices lead to deeply insular solitary experiences,” explains Brendan Walker, a ‘thrill engineer’ who consults for theme parks and has built virtual reality into a series of interactive installations over the past few years. “If that is seen to be a problem, that people say it separates us, then it’s a massive issue. But if it’s embraced sensitively, then I think maybe it’s the only hurdle [preventing mass acceptance of the technology].”

Walker’s recent work confronts the real/fake dichotomy of virtual reality head-on. At Sheffield Doc/Fest in 2015, he combined a traditional children’s playground swing with an Oculus Rift headset to allow people to feel like they were swinging higher and further than they actually were, while those queuing for the experience could watch.

“This led to [people] shrieking with gay abandon in the virtual world but then a sudden realisation that they were actually also in the real world performing to an audience of queuing spectators,” he explains. “Then people would sort of clam up. And it was this awkwardness fluctuating between the real and the virtual world that created the movement and emotions which was necessary to create a thrilling experience.”

Another of Walker’s rides, which was exhibited at Nesta’s FutureFest in 2015, placed volunteers wearing both a VR headset and brain activity sensors on top of a motion simulator. The output of the sensors was used both to drive the simulator and to create an audiovisual experience that was seen through the headset.

But the audiovisual experience could also be seen and heard by a crowd watching big screens surrounding the installation. It allowed the crowd to participate in the experience.