I started the draft of this blog post on Wednesday morning before I visited Facebook’s headquarters to demo the latest version of Rift. That visit changed some initial opinions I had about VR. Some but not all.
Before the Facebook demo, I had already been geeking out with my Samsung Gear — watching every Vrse video by Chris Milk, moving objects with my mind in Land’s End, mediating with colorful strings of light inside Mike Tucker’s Tana Pura, and floating in the air with Benicio Del Toro in Take Flight.
I recently decided to walk into the world of Virtual Reality; I had my first VR experience in 2015 inside the offices of Kaleidoscope VR. I say “walk” because I’m taking in this new, rapid pace medium with meditation. I’m excited about VR’s ability to promote empathy and invoke an immersive out-of-body experience. I am an VR enthusiast and see the many possibilities that VR can bring light to the society, but I also see the gray.
Right now many VR enthusiasts are so excited about its emergence that they rarely discuss problems and potential issues in the field. With this blog, I want to be as honest as possible about my experience and opinions in VR — that means discussing the successes, as well as the failures — within the industry and my own personal journey. I’m interested in the tech, art and cultural relevance of VR.
This is one of the great things I love about Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Cline explores the shadows of VR, showing us where the medium can take us, but also how it can hold us back. It can be a tool for connection, empathy and meditation. But it can also be a tool to escape the real world. That desire to be constantly attached to the virtual world and detached from the physical one can be problematic in terms of development and health. That said, VR also brings breathtaking moments like Evolution of Verse, a surreal dreamland that envelopes you into the hand of a baby and rushes your senses with a moving train that crashes into 100 flying black birds. This is art in VR and it’s beautiful.
My initial draft of this post spoke about the potential anti-social interaction that VR could present in the future within solo gaming experiences. But demoing Facebook’s Toybox gave me new hope. The design of the space felt safe and light. The color combination of calm blue, subtle porcelain white and deep reds, invoked a sense of childhood play, not the shoot, shoot, bang, bang dark battle environments in most of the games I’ve tried in VR. I was having so much fun playing ping pong and throwing objects in virtual space to another player who was physically in a different room. I connected with a stranger in this virtual playground. When I kept shooting at her head with the laser gun, she asked ‘ why are you shooting at me?’ I told her to do the same to me. She responded ‘Aww, how cool.’ Because instead of a bloody mess it was a vibration of my avatar’s blue head with red and gold sparkles.
We tried to hand objects to each other and laughed when I shrunk her to a miniature size that also made her voice shrink like a scene in Willy Wonka. This game allowed me to feel like a kid for a brief moment in time. In my adult reality with all its struggles and stress, I was free to play, discover and connect. If this game can set up an option to have players meet new people in the Toybox, I believe it will revolutionize the idea of social gaming, especially in terms of female involvement. I don’t consider myself a gamer, but I could have been in the demo for more than an hour getting to know more about the woman who joined me during playtime.
As a woman of color who is lucky enough to have the opportunity to experience VR, it saddens me that access to this extraordinary technology is being mainly targeted to a selected elite, with the exception of Google Cardboard. I believe Google learned its lesson from the exclusivity of GoogleGlass. Very few people had a chance to touch and experiment with the technology and the people who wore them in public were deemed ‘Glassholes’. It seemed it was only made to be for male tech engineers and their buddies or celebrities like Diane von Furstenberg. I’m into tech, but it was clear they weren’t marketing that product to someone like me.
Google has made Cardboard an affordable device to view 360 videos. It’s not immersive like Oculus’ Rift or Gear VR, but it’s a nice introduction. It looks like Google also has a campaign to bring the device beyond the walls of tech industry offices to schools, events and other public spaces. The company also has the talented Jessica Brillhart as its principle filmmaker making 360 films with the Google Jump rig. She has an eye for documentary style and will bring a distinct aesthetic to what is currently missing in Youtube’s #360 search results. In order to keep VR relevant it needs quality content with a diversity of voices, stories and consumers.
Socially integrating VR will be a massive task for companies and VR advocates. Sundance, tech conferences and private demo invites are currently the only way people can experience the technology. Kaleidoscope has a traveling VR Film Festival and their films are nicely curated. So they are taking an initial step in bringing VR to the public. Still, the base framework of a a VR festival is likely to entice an audience comprised of people who are already interested in VR or tech innovation.
The cinema is one of the few places (past and present) where there’s no economic divide in who’s experiencing the film— we are all watching the same story for the same affordable price in one room. I believe VR can have that same cinematic appeal with the masses. But we can’t ask the public to be excited about a technology that they have never tried. Paying $10 to check out a movie is much different than investing between $100–$1500 to test out an experience you’ve never had. But I bet people will get excited and want it to try VR once they they get intimate with the animated character Henry or smash gnomes in Toybox. Consider the Apple store — it was a genius way to get people interested in unfamiliar technology by making it accessible. Parents take their kids to the Apple store to play with the latest iPad, musicians go there to test out a variety of digital speakers and grandparents get trained on how to use their new Apple devices. The Apple store is more than a place to buy something. It is a social exploration of technology.
This is why I founded Tonbo Haus, a project that is focused on bringing VR to everyone — artists, tech, poor, rich, white, black, and everyone else in the human rainbow of the world— ideally all mixed in the same room. If we want people to get excited about VR, we need to bring it to them.
This weekend I’m delivering a VR experience to Sunday Mass, an art and dance party in San Francisco. I’m excited to spread the love of VR to groups who normally would not get a chance to experiment with the medium. I can’t wait until the day I see VR demos at events like The Essence Festival and WOW. If you already have a Samsung phone, the Gear VR will run you $100, which is less than an Xbox One or Apple TV. Minority buying power is massive and the VR industry will lose a large chunk of an audience by only presenting it to those inside the bubble.
VR enthusiasts will no doubt buy the latest technology and I am certain sales of VR headsets will sky rocket the first few years because of those fans, but if you want to change the world, bring it the to the masses. VR is currently not a socially integrated technology like smartphones have become. That being said, I don’t see a world where people will be on on the subway with a headset on during their commute. Though I do envision a future where VR headsets will be a common device in most homes. People in those homes will want content that speaks to and inspires them. I want to play ping pong with that audience and watch their stories in VR. The future is bright, let’s share the sunshine.
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