I have ventured into the brave new world of virtual reality and discovered it to be sometimes frightening, yet exciting beyond imagination.
My walk into the technological innovation that is already changing our future happened unexpectedly, when I was in Silicon Valley last week for a reunion of the John S. Knight journalism fellows at Stanford University.
Before the reunion, my daughter Brett and I stopped off at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California.
We had been invited by a friend to take a private tour with virtual-reality interaction designer Anshuman Kumar.
Kumar designs user experiences for Google’s Daydream team. The team’s goal is to bring high-quality virtual-reality immersion to everyone.
When we arrived at Google, Kumar asked if we had ever experienced virtual reality. Not being a video gamer and not yet aware of the “Pokemon Go” augmented reality phenomenon, I hardly knew what he was talking about.
I thought we were coming to Google to check out the employee cafes where free gourmet meals are served all day, the Google coffee bars where baristas make complimentary lattes whenever you want one, the snack kitchens offering free fresh berries and kale chips, and the climbing wall and tennis courts, plus the place where Google employees get free hair cuts. I didn’t quite get it that Kumar was going to treat us to virtual adventures.
Virtual reality, for those as uninitiated as I was before visiting Google, is the computer simulation of a three-dimensional environment, which the user experiences through a head-mounted device.
The headgear tracks the user’s head and body movements to change what the user sees as he or she physically moves through the virtual environment. The user’s brain reacts as though it were immersed in a real environment. Users believe they are really there.
We put on headsets to drop deep down into the ocean to the deck of a shipwreck, where we were surrounded by schools of sea creatures and visited by an 800-foot-long whale. This was an app called “theBlu: Whale Encounter,” developed by startup Wevr of Venice, California.
The sea creatures moved with us as we walked around the reality of a stark white Google office room. Yet fitted with our headset we were thousands of feet below in the deep blue sea. Beautiful marine plants closed when we used a hand controller to touch them and fish scattered when we reached out to them.
“This is the weirdest thing I have ever seen. I didn’t think in my lifetime I would ever experience anything like this,“ said Brett, who was completely taken aback.
Brett sensed the seductiveness of VR. “I can see how you wouldn’t want to go back. You lose track of time,” she said.
I liked it down below in the ocean, but one of the other virtual experiences was so frightening that I took off the viewing device to make it stop. That was The New York Times VR app of filmmaker Jimmy Chin’s climb to the top of the 1 World Trade Center spire.
Chin, who skied down Mount Everest and summited the Shark’s Fin peak called Meru in the Himalayas, is one of my mountaineering heroes. It was amazing to “climb” with Jimmy, but looking down at Manhattan 1,776 feet below was terrifying. I felt dizzy and scared. Luckily, I was not really there.
We also tried our hand at painting three-dimensional artworks using Google’s Tilt Brush, which offers users a palette of virtual paint that you dip into with a hand controller and then paint while walking in and out of the paint swirls.
“This is just the craziest thing,” said Brett, as she moved up and down in the room to create an abstract painting, virtually splashing into the air a color called pumpkin orange.
Kumar said he “paints” all the time at home.
“It’s a stress reliever. I once studied architecture. It is a great way to be creative,” he said.
Kumar believes in a matter of years, virtual experiences will become an everyday reality.
Although you can find “virtual reality” glasses used with smart phones for less tan $20 online, the most sophisticated headsets can cost about $800. But they will get cheaper and less cumbersome to wear. Kumar said the time will come when people will freely enter virtual environments on a daily basis.
He said you will be able to tour the world without leaving your bedroom and to learn new skill sets more easily by being immersed in virtual instruction. He even sees the day people will work in virtual-reality offices that have embedded computers and phones.
“There are so many challenges to create a virtual work place. But it is going to happen for sure,” said Kumar.
He expects virtual reality will radically change human lives just as the computer and the advent of the smart phone have done.
“Before, when we had the first heavy, block-like Motorola cell phones,” said Kumar, “we used them only to make calls when we were away from work or home. Now our smart phones are an integral part of our lives. We can’t imagine being without them. It is the same with virtual reality. People will be living part of their lives in virtual reality.”
Stanford University professor Jeremy Bailenson said virtual reality “is coming at us like a freight train.”
The founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Bailenson studies how the brain absorbs and reacts to virtual reality.
He was one of the speakers at my journalism fellowship reunion.
One of the lab’s key studies is look at how virtual reality can alter human behavior to make humans more altruistic and empathetic.
People have studied for years how violent VR games can make players more violent.
Shawnee Baughman, a Stanford student, decided to see whether virtual reality could be used to do the opposite: to make people kinder, more empathetic.
In the experiment, people were asked to enter a virtual environment to try to save a young child who was left behind during an earthquake evacuation. The child was diabetic and would go into shock without insulin.
Participants in the VR experiment were asked to become virtual superheroes, lifting their arms up like Superman to fly over the buildings, searching the city for the child to give him a vial of insulin he needed to live. When a participant found the virtual child, he was asked call out — which would mean the child had been handed the medicine and was saved.
Others in the experiment flew in a virtual helicopter to search for the child. When the child was spotted, the helicopter pilot handed the child the vial of insulin.
Afterward, each participant was asked to go into a room where they thought they were meeting individually with a researcher to review their experience. But the woman was actually an actress. During the meeting, the actress accidentally dropped a cup filled with 15 pens.
The superheroes, who had “flown” over buildings to save the child, quickly jumped up to help the actress retrieve the pens.
“Becoming a person who helps teaches empathy,’ said Bailenson.
The study participants in the helicopter were slower to help the actress and picked up fewer pens. Their experience in the helicopter had been more passive. They watched as the pilot rescued the child, whereas the superheroes actually did the rescuing themselves.
Bailenson’s lab has also looked at the power of virtual reality as a diversity-training tool. The notion is that if you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, you will become more empathetic toward that person.
In an application, a white male dons a headset to become virtually transformed into a woman of color. The virtual woman is treated unkindly because of her gender and race by another avatar.
Bailenson said participants absorb the pain of prejudice more profoundly when they are immersed in a virtual world than they ever could by reading about discrimination in a book or by participating in role-playing sessions.
He said they are still trying to determine how long altruism and helping behavior last after virtual experiences.
Virtual reality’s applications are endless for training pilots, surgeons and soldiers and giving children exciting, immersive educational experiences.
Bailenson is the co-founder of a company called STRIVR Labs (Sports Training in Virtual Reality) that turns filmed practice sessions into immersive virtual-reality experiences to teach athletes how to make better and faster decisions in games. The program is used widely now by school and professional teams, including NFL teams.
There is a virtual-reality application used by police departments to teach police officers when to shoot and when to hold back.
The downside is that virtual reality can become addictive. Users can confuse computer-generated scenes with the real world. For some with weak stomachs, it can be nauseating.
But virtual reality is here and it’s certain that as it becomes more readily available, it’s going to change the world in ways we cannot, now, even imagine.