Virtual Reality Meets Actual Reality: Why VR Is Harder Than You Think


At the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco Monday, three virtual reality proponents hit the stage to talk about the potential—and the pitfalls—of virtual reality.

It’s an exciting time for VR pioneers like Richard Marks, head of research and development at Sony; Paul Raphaël of Felix & Paul Studios; and HTC’s Claude Zellweger. But judging by what we’ve seen of the technology so far, it’s nothing compared to what the future holds. 

The Many Uses Of Virtual Reality

Already, augmented and virtual reality can act as tools for anything from education to medicine, architecture to real estate sales, and more. 

Take doctors, for instance. Instead of just reading about a medical condition or looking at 2D images, “[they] can go into the disease,” said HTC’s Zellweger, whose company makes the forthcoming Vive VR headset. Students can visit historical venues, or experience great works of art from anywhere in the world. 

The secret to succeeding with this emerging technology? For Raphaël, it boils down to three things: “[These experiences] need to look good; they need to feel good; and they need to be engaging. If you don’t have one of those three, it’s a failure.” 

Not that VR is a perfect medium yet. One tricky area for some tech purveyors is audio. Flat sound can “kill the atmosphere,” Raphaël added. 

Making VR Friendly For Newcomers

Even for naysayers who try VR for the first time, the technology allows them to “feel like they’re participating in the story,” said Marks. Sony is obviously deeply involved in entertainment—from gaming to movies, among other things. The company notes how first-timers are often “very much surprised at how much they like being a part of it.”

Raphaël explained that, even for “noninteractive content, there’s a level of interaction in the space,” though he acknowledges that the set-up can look pretty strange at first glance. 

“From the outside, it looks like the beginning of the end,” he said. “From the inside, it’s actually much more human than looking at a flat screen.”

But even in an immersive environment, it’s still a solitary experience, with both eyes and ears covered. Some day, however, that isolation, too, will be a thing of the past.

“You won’t be alone in this virtual world,” said Marks, hinting at how virtual reality could become much more social in the future.

Zellweger agreed. “We’re going to see a rapid progression,” he said, and this coming ability to enjoy shared experiences should “open up the field for sports applications, exercising” and so on. 

Felix & Paul is getting into public affairs, apparently, too: The studio is working on a project with former president Bill Clinton, Raphaël said, after some prodding from TechCrunch moderator Drew Olanoff. He didn’t offer more details. We’ll have to wait for that project, too, to become real. 

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