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Virtual reality: Feeling our way into an uncertain future

I spent some time playing with blocks on Thursday, but first I had to strap a computer to my face. The reason: I had an opportunity to try out Leap Motion’s Orion virtual-reality setup, which tracks your hands so you can use them in whatever scene you see in the headset you’re wearing.

But that was just one vision of virtual reality on display at the Collision conference that took place this week in New Orleans. What’s still uncertain is which of those visions will ultimately prevail in the real world.

Hands-on VR

Leap Motion’s CEO, Michael Buckwald, was one in a long lineup of speakers at Collision, an event put on by the organizers of Web Summit. (I moderated a couple of panels myself.) After Buckwald’s onstage interview Thursday, I saw somebody in the speaker-prep room wearing a VR headset, waving his hands around but grasping at nothing.

I had to check that out. Caleb Krause, chief of staff for the San Francisco company, explained that Leap Motion’s prototype system uses low-res cameras and infrared lights in a small module on the front of the VR headset to detect your hands and represent them in a virtual world.

The Leap Motion demo entailed creating and manipulating virtual blocks with my hands. To create new ones, I pinched my thumb and forefinger together, then moved them apart. As I did, a glowing cube emerged between them, growing like a soap bubble. When I opened up my hand, the finished block tumbled to the virtual ground.

Another gesture caused a simple menu to appear next to my left hand, from which I could tap buttons to switch from creating cubes to spawning rectangular blocks or 20-sided icosahedrons. It was as fascinating as my demos of HTC’s Vive, another VR setup that translates your real-world motions into virtual ones — but Leap Motion’s demo didn’t require a dedicated room or an array of sensor boxes.

Also unlike the Vive, however, Leap Motion’s technology isn’t shipping in VR headsets yet. Buckwald said in his talk that third-party manufacturers should begin adding it to their products by “around the end of this year, probably.”

How do you sell this?

VR kept popping up across the stages and exhibits that filled one end of the convention center, and pretty much everybody agreed that it was awesome. “As of now, VR is as close as it gets to teleportation,” Samsung’s Marc Mathieu said in one panel.

But at this marketing-minded conference, there was not as much agreement about when VR will become a big business. At another panel, Marriott’s creative director Marc Battaglia called it “the perfect marketing medium for traveling” but said there aren’t enough headsets in use. “It hasn’t reached a mass audience just yet.”

He added that his hotel chain sees the same positive reactions from customers whether they explore interactive scenes wearing a $599 Oculus Rift, hold a cheap Google Cardboard to their face, or just click around a 2D panorama in a webpage.

In the same panel, David Mellor, creative director for Framestore, pointed out that good VR marketing doesn’t come cheap.

“It’s comparable to a very-high-end 60-second TV commercial,” he said — meaning budgets “up to seven digits.”

Setting aside business issues, VR’s creative possibilities — what will work, what won’t — also remain unsettled. At one of the panels I moderated, PGA Tour content director Sloane Kelley and Derek Belch, founder of the VR-training firm STRIVR, observed that nausea remains a real risk, so you have to limit the amount of perceived motion in a VR experience.

It’s also unclear how this can stop being a fundamentally solitary experience. At the panel that Samsung’s Mathieu spoke on, Cirque du Soleil media president Jacques Méthé suggested audiences might someday put on VR headsets during parts of a Cirque production to get different perspectives. I’m not sure if that’s a good idea at all. (Before you ask: Yes, VR porn is also now a thing, but I did not hear that discussed in any of the panels I attended.)

It’s not just about business or entertainment

The most arresting panel at Collision involved Steve Gleason, the former New Orleans Saints safety who was diagnosed with ALS in 2011. At the conference, the Surface tablet on his wheelchair spoke for him in a synthesized voice, reading the words he had selected with slight movements of his eyes: “I used eye-tracking to type this speech.”

Gleason’s co-panelist, Omar Ahmad, a doctor and researcher at the Johns Hopkins University’s Brain, Learning, Animation, and Movement Lab, then explained that VR can be used to “give people a sense of movement back who have lost it.“

Or in practical terms, VR would be Gleason’s chance to play a game with his son. I’ll put up with a lot of VR hype if we can make that happen.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.


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