On being isolated - Is a VR face sucker that bad?

Posted: 01.20.16

I have, and may continue to, ridicule the idea of people voluntarily spending long periods of time in a VR HMD. Military, surgeons, and welders do it because they have to, but otherwise it’s a form of torture. But, let’s look at some of that criticism …  One of the criticisms of VR is that the engulfing HMD does its job—it removes you from the real environment, it isolates you, takes you out of the here and now. That’s called escapism, and we all do it in one form or another—watching a movie in a dark theater, or even TV with the lights off. Reading a book, or playing a game. 

Increasingly, we take ourselves out of the real world looking at out smart-phones and/or tablets. How many times has someone bumped into you because they’ve been looking at their smart-phone instead of where they are going? How many times have you done it? How many YouTube videos have you seen of people walking into ponds, walls, or traffic?

If that isn’t extraction from reality what is? 

So what is the difference between removing yourself emotionally from the environment with earbuds, a smart-phone, a handheld game machine, or a VR HMD?

Physical discomfort? Really? Is an HMD that much more discomforting than walking around with your arm extended while the blood circulation slowly drains out of it and you can no longer feel your fingers?

Most people will argue that with a smartphone you can still see peripherally. Right, but remember the videos of people walking into ponds and poles? Where was their peripheral vision in those situations? The fact is, those viewers were captivated by the screen; nothing else in the world existed for them. (Can you imagine dating such a person? They must be stimulating as hell.) So if you can get captivated and totally lost, oblivious to the outside world, with a little 5-inch 2D screen, why is a 360-degree world, even if constrained to a 70-degree field of view, worse? 

Answer: because you’ll walk into things. You mean like a fountain or wall? Right. Well, that’d never happen outside of an HMD, now would it? 

VR HMDs make you sick. No, they don’t; badly made VR content makes you sick. The HMD doesn’t have anything to do with it. 

No one wants to wear stupid glasses or HMDs. Boy, that’s going to really disappoint the movie industry, all those 3D movies they made.

As for wearing an HMD, have you ever worn a motorcycle helmet? Talk about limited FOV (field of view). How about scuba diving; ever done that? How was your FOV and sense of the world then? 

Today’s HMDs are a pain. They are too heavy, too tight, too restrictive, and too limited in resolution, FOV, and content. Other than that, they’re great. VR HMDs have been around since the late 1960s and haven’t changed much in design since then. Sure, the screens have gotten lighter, larger, higher resolution, and more colorful, but basically it’s a closed cage with two displays wrapped around your head—VPL 1985. Let’s call that design Gen 1. 

With great generosity, given to head and/or eye tracking, stereo/5.1 sound, and hand recognition features and controllers, I think we can safely call today’s offerings Gen 2. The new Rift and HTC Vive claim 110-degree FOV with 2160 × 1200 resolution, which sounds great. The Rift is expected (hoped) to weigh less than 380 grams, and the latest version of the Vive shown at CES has been slimmed down to look and feel comparable to the latest Rift. But 380 grams (for the metrically challenged, that’s about 13.5 ounces) is a little less than a tenth the weight of your head. 
Regardless of your cranial weight, after about 15 minutes, an additional 13.5 ounces pressing down on your neck is going to be felt, and by a half hour you’ll complain of cramps. Now, like any physical exertion, you can train for it and overcome the discomfort— i.e., just keep wearing it until you toughen up. Man up, you don’t hear Master Chief complaining about his helmet, do you? 

So being isolated isn’t a bad thing, you already are. Wearing a helmet isn’t a difficult thing—you probably already have. And escaping from reality isn’t a depraved thing—you do it all the time, every day and probably every evening. Wait and see, we may never spend a long time in immersive environments, but VR HMDs are going to be part of our lives just like smartphones are part of our lives—and just like smartphones, we’ll trade off their discomforts for the pleasures.