VR with Purpose: Better than reality

By Phil Stuart, Opinion

While the quality and fidelity of VR will soon allow us to replicate our world, we believe the slavish pursuit of authenticity actually misses a key opportunity. What VR actually opens up is the possibility of creating a different reality; a reality which can enhance, adjust or change what the user experiences.

This second post in our VR with Purpose series explores what opportunities this version of reality provides audiences and organisations, and asks the question; can VR actually be better than reality?

Making the Invisible visible

Visual learning is one of the principal ways in which we all make sense of our world. But when much of our world – the forces and phenomena that governs how it works – are hidden from the naked eye, how can we truly understand it? VR provides the opportunity to make the invisible visible, and that creates an incredible opportunity to increase our understanding of the world around us.

Visualisation in real time has become a critical part of the creation process for engineers over the years. And now VR can provide the opportunity to get even closer to this type of visualisation – to allow specialists to create a truly meaningful test environment which they can step into – and experience first hand. VR can help architects understand the effect of invisible load bearing forces on their proposed designs for buildings and structures before they have built them, and the same is true of visualising magnetic fields and heat around machinery for safety officers, or allowing engineers to see the invisible forces acting on their cars or planes.

Some of this is an enhancement of what 3D simulations have offered industry for years. But what is more tantalising is how mainstream audiences can now experience this visualisation of these invisible worlds in VR. Who knows how this access will contribute to a creating a new generation of passionate STEM thinkers.

Science Museum’s Handley Page VR: Making the invisible visible

The Science Museum’s first foray into VR does just that. Handley Page VR is a experience for onsite visitors to London’s world-famous Science Museum which sets out to show the invisible forces of air pressure acting on an historic airplane and how these forces change in flight. It also shows the cause and effect of the plane’s key design features – the flaps and slots – and how they allow the plane to take off and land safely in short distances, as well as allowing visitors to sit in the plane’s cockpit for this immersive experience.

As VR interfaces and controllers provide low(er) threshold experiences, creators are exploring how VR can go even further and become a practical tool to better understand our environment. it can be something we use as a practical tool.In 2015 the Wellcome Trust ran a competition to use VR to process complex data. The brief was to find the best way – in VR – to visualise results of environmental and genetic factors that have shaped the lives of more than 14,000 residents of the city of Bristol. The range of entries shows the utility of the medium and the enthusiasm from the scientific community.

Two of the five finalists chose to explore genomics data.  The winners, Luma Pie, looked at the data through the use of head tracking, using motion to produce colourful patterns that correspond to variations of genetic parameters.

Playing with time and scale

We started this post by stating that VR allows us to see things that are impossible in our real world. Never is this experience more profound that when our perception of the world is distorted – from the point of view of either scale or time.

Google Earth’s VR update transports the user anywhere in the world in full VR. What is remarkable (and perhaps surprising) about the experience is the role scale plays in the comprehension of what you are seeing. Changing the scale allows the user to walk down Manhattan broadway in human scale or zoom out to create a diorama of a thriving city. Using Google Earth the user can step over the Great Wall of China or perch on top of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer. It’s exhilarating to see the world in a different scale and to marvel at the impact these structures have over their environment. It will never replace the feeling of ancient stone under your feet or the South Atlantic breeze rising up over Rio, but it does provide a unique way of experience these locations that is completely different to a physical visit.

VR can take us to places we simply cannot go to in real life. Body VR does just that, putting the user into a place – right into a human body – something that is both eerily familiar yet totally alien to many of us. A tool like this could support medical training in facilitating virtual dissections and operations, but equally could be used to help all of us de-mystify and better understand the workings of the body.   

From micro to macro, nowhere does scale present more of a challenge to us as we try to get to grips with distances and understand the size of our universe. Apps like Universe Sandbox VR set out to aid the comprehension of it, while rather alarmingly allowing us  to experience the creation or destruction of it, otherwise known as playing God!

Cape Farewell’s Energy Renaissance: Showing a future world

Whilst manipulation of scale allows a different perspective on our world, the manipulation of time allows us to see a world that might be. Energy Renaissance imagines what a de-carbonised, greener city environment might feel like in the future. A perfect use of VR for a project which ask the participates to explore, taste and imagine utopia.

Increasing accessibility

The total immersion of VR allows the user to be taken places and to see things that aren’t part of their reality.  

The boom in VR showrooms, particularly in the retail and automotive sectors (JLR’s version here) show how VR is moving beyond a marketing gimmick into a genuine tool which allows the user to not only experience something but configure and perhaps even buy.

With the cost of high quality VR decreasing, it is also becoming increasingly pervasive in training – when the training about avoiding hazards or operating in a hostile or remote environment, or if the location doesn’t exist yet. Here at Preloaded, we’ve been working with a transport organisation to prototype Hazard VR, a use of VR to train employees on working safely and identifying hazards in challenging environments.  The difference using VR makes is that it enables those being trained to get nearer than ever to experience the hazards or challenges they might encounter in contrast with traditional training locations where access to equipment can be limited.

Away from the world of work, VR can make the real world more accessible in all sorts of ways. For sports fans, that means ever more immersive ways of watching their favourite games, whether that’s football giant Manchester City offering behind-the-scenes views of the Etihad Stadium to amplify excitement or US broadcaster FOX Sports making a soccer game VR-friendly, sports can now be enjoyed in new, exciting ways.

In the cultural sector, VR could make it possible for us to experience  inaccessible treasures once more.  The Lascaux cave system in Southern France with its breathtaking 17000 year old cave paintings, which has been closed to the public since 1963, could be captured in VR for people to explore without fear of their very presence threatening the existence of these incredible images created by early Man.

VR is also hugely social. While nothing quite beats hanging out with friends in real-life scenarios, Oculus and Facebook have launched Oculus Rooms and Parties, VR gathering places for small groups to get together, chat and play games in scenarios that are “focused on enabling social activities that mirror how you may hang out with friends in real life.” For the socially shy, the geographically separated or the just plain curious, this is an enhanced way to ‘hang out’ with like-minded individuals in familiar environments.

VR with Purpose

A defining characteristic of VR (and what sets is apart from AR) is its ability to create a distinct reality from our own. It can democratise content, taking us places impossible to visit. It can open our eyes to things we can’t see in real life and instill a passion and understanding that can be transformative. It can also help us see things differently; whether we’re future gazing or simply reframing our perspectives on our world.

It is in this creation of a different reality, a reality which site-steps authenticity, where the opportunity truly lies. Better than reality experiences that have intent and purpose in their inception and utility as their ambition.

Our next Purposeful event on 30th March in Central London will bring this blog series together with a series of micro-talks and demos. If you’d like to attend let us know or indeed want to talk more about how you can use VR with purpose.

Phil is the co-founder and Creative Director of Preloaded. A fanatical gamer and a champion for the power of games which do more than just entertain, he is responsible for the studio’s ‘Games with Purpose’ vision.

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