Over the weekend I joined a group of friends for our annual just after Christmas Christmas dinner. Alongside the traditions of exorbitant amounts of cheese and probably too much wine, people bring along games to play. I took my Meta Quest 2 VR headset.
None of my five friends had experienced “room-scale” VR before – the Quest headset tracks your position in space so that when you move about the room, you move about the virtual space in which the headset places you. You set the system up so it knows where the floor and walls are, and it prevents you from passing through those boundaries in the virtual space and rudely interrupting physical objects.
The looks of spellbound joy on people’s faces as they explored the Quest’s training app we tempered only by the way in which wearing a VR headset makes you look like a complete ninny. Everyone was impressed by the experience. Some enquired about how much the headsets cost.
I’m not sure, though, that anyone could work out what you’d actually do with one though.
I started exploring VR about 6 years ago when I was doing some work with a law firm. Somehow I managed to convince them to acquire an HTC Vive VR rig, which at the time was an investment of around £3,000 for the headset, the sensors that needed to be placed in the play space, and a hefty gaming PC to drive the whole thing. It was impressive stuff, but terribly impractical for the complexity of setting up a space in which to work, and the sheer amount of cabling involved (the headset itself was permanently tethered to the PC with wires).
We set up at an internal event for the firm’s partners, and the responses to the technology were interesting:
There were some complete refusniks, who wanted nothing to do with it.
There were some who were curious but wanted to know from me, the technology person, what VR would do for the world of law. My response, in maybe more polite terms, was “You tell me. You’re the lawyer.” Some of these people who have a go.
Finally, there were those who simply wanted to play. Like my friends at the weekend, almost everyone was impressed by the experience. And for some it sparked ideas – of being able to bring the factory floor into the boardroom to illustrate health and safety risks to executives in HR law clients; of being able to beam into specific geographic locations for property lawyers working at cases from their desks.
Were these killer applications for VR, or indeed for the world of law? Not a chance. But it wasn’t until they started to engage did any of the lawyers even begin to see what possibilities might lay ahead.
Six years later, the progress that has been made by Meta and their mega-dollars being pumped into the Quest project is impressive. The experience of room-scale with the HTC Vive (or indeed the Oculus headsets at the time) is now pretty much crammed in totality into the headset, a device that retails for around £400. The headset can sense the space in which it is being used, and also contains a couple of cameras so that a user can “pass through” into the real world – particularly useful if you need to find the two controllers. In addition to the handset controllers, though, is the ability to use the headset with just gesture – so the headset is hand tracking as well as everything else it’s doing.
There’s a training app that allows you to understand the basics of how to interact with a virtual world around you, the basics of picking things up and controlling the environment.
The whole experience is really slick. The money that has been poured into Quest is obvious.
So what is it for? That’s the big question.
The first obvious answer is gaming. I’m not a gamer but have dabbled with a few titles on Quest. There’s a platform game and a couple of puzzle/adventure games that I’ve played around with that are immersive, although particularly with the platform game, where the “camera” tracks the characters, dizziness quickly crops up as one’s brain senses visual movement that isn’t backed up by the appropriate physical movement. There appears to be a language that is yet to properly emerge to understand how to use VR in ways that are both visually impressive, but also don’t make the user want to vomit.
There are some curiosities that are really immersive. Google’s Tilt Brush allows you to paint in three dimensions with a multitude of brushes in a way that simply is impossible to achieve in the physical world. Abstract artist Alison Goodyear has been experimenting with the tool and talks about it in this interview:
I’m also fascinated by the world of mapping, street and ariel imagery that is brought to life through tools like Google Earth (which will run on a PC which you then connect to the headset) or Wooorld which runs on the headset alone and is reviewed below:
These apps are really immersive. They’re really fun. But killer applications? Probably not.
So how about the world of work? Again, this is an area where Meta have obviously invested vast amounts creating Workrooms.
There are two ways primarily that Workrooms can be used. The first creates a virtual office for an individual. You can sit at your actual desk with your actual keyboard in front of you, and then pop your headset on and transport yourself to a virtual space where you can work on your PC virtually in front of you (the headset connects to allow for screen-streaming from your PC to the virtual world).
Why would you want to do this? Well, you can set up a big monitor in the virtual world, and the promise is that soon you’ll be able to drive three. So a bigger screen real estate than you might be able to fit in your actual office. But that seems like a fairly low pay-back for the inconvenience of having to wear the headset for hours on end.
The second configuration is a lot more interesting. Workrooms provide a number of layouts for virtual meeting rooms. Participants can join one another, and people can join who don’t have headsets, beamed into the meeting in a Zoom-like manner.
My view in the virtual meeting room, the table in front of me and the non-VR participant on a screen (face obscured to protect the innocent).
The non-VR participant’s view of the meeting (although I had left the room at this point – my avatar would have been sitting on one of the floating chairs).
The avatars that appear are at first distracting, but after a while you get used to them. Here’s a short clip where I spent a bit of time with Max Tatton Brown where we were both using headsets. Strangely only Max’s audio was recorded…
I’ve not spent enough time in these spaces yet to really draw judgement, but they do appear more immersive than merely Zoom or Teams. I’m particularly interested in the Classroom-style layout, where people are arranged in tables in groups of 4 with a facilitator at the front of the room but who can also drop over to any of the tables. Audio is cleverly managed in that you can hear the hubbub of the whole room, but only really discern the voices of people at your table. This is a big advance on the weirdly sterile breakout rooms of Zoom and Teams. As someone who regularly facilitates bigger group sessions, classrooms in Workrooms piques my interest.
All of this, however, is a simulation of the real world. Which has its place, but does run the risk of being seen as a poorer version of reality rather than something better than the real world. As Rory Sutherland said about video calling, the problem of being marketed as the poor person’s air travel rather than the rich person’s telephone.
I’m fascinated by how VR could create environments in which one could create playful experiences that couldn’t be achieved at all in the physical world. Imagine a brainstorming session where rather than being constrained to the limits of a whiteboard, you could summon any object you could imagine and place it together with any others.
There are a few tools that I have started to look at in this sort of domain – Shapes XR is interesting, as is a VR mind mapping tool called Noda –
It is obviously early days for tools like this. I’ve yet to experience Noda with other people in the room, and here lies the biggest challenge for my experimentation at the moment – hardly anyone has the kit.
The experiments will continue. If you would like to explore more, do drop me a line!