Forget 4K televisions and the latest iPhone, because the hottest technological sensation for 2016 is the launch of consumer-grade virtual reality goggles. Although you might remember being promised a similar revolution in the 1990s, then again in the mid 2000s, and then again about 18 months ago, virtual reality is really here this time.
Or at least VR is virtually here, as you’re going to need to carry out some preparation if you want to transform your living room into the holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the interests of research, I’ve been living in the matrix for the last couple of months to discover what this bold new world means for the average non-cyborg. I’ve now returned to meatspace and changed into a clean pair of underpants to write this exclusive guide for you, a fully-interactive tour of the most exciting technology since 3DTV. If you are reading this via Gallery’s augmented reality experience (which the editor tells me will have launched by the time this issue is in print), then now is the time to put the electrodes in your mouth and increase the voltage to your crotch socket. Digitise … NOW >1101010100010000100111111
What is virtual reality?
Virtual reality, or VR for short, is a way of replacing boring normal reality with a limitless world entirely simulated by technology. Once you invest at least £500, configure and strap on a giant bulky helmet, some headphones and a controller of some sort you will be plunged into a digitally-rendered alternate reality where you are free to go anywhere, see anything and even interact with things by poking them with a kind of floppy virtual hand. You’ll be able to use VR to consume media, have new experiences without leaving your couch, and also to watch hours of disorienting pornography whilst giving yourself a cluster headache. Imagine Ceefax, but better. The world will never be the same again.
That sounds like a video game. Is it like Wii Sports?
In the sense that VR will require you to remove breakable objects and children from your living room, yes. Unlike Wii Sports, VR will fully immerse you in the simulated HD golf-course environment, filling your view with artificial grass and oddly-repetitive water features wherever you turn your gaze. Like Wii Sports, anybody watching you will laugh at your stupid facial expressions, flailing limbs and inability to swing a virtual 9-iron without smacking yourself in the face. The main difference is that the illusion offered by today’s VR makes use of dramatically more powerful technology, so the thrilling realism of Wii Sports has been extended to simulate sitting in a spaceship, floating jerkily up a mountain or being one of those soldiers who flies drone strikes against goat farmers in Afghanistan.
I’m not interested in video games. Does it do anything else?
What doesn’t it do? It places you inside another world, like a View-Master, or like Knightmare but without being ordered around by a bunch of teenage nerds. Imagine watching Batman vs Superman from inside a crumbling skyscraper, being sat on top of a dragon in Game of Thrones, or staring into Sue Perkins’ hungry mouth from the perceptive of a slice of Victoria Sponge. The possibilities are limitless, at least until you start talking about other, less-important, senses, like taste, touch and smell. VR isn’t there yet, although anticipation for VR technology is so high that it can only be a matter of time before digital nose implants, tongue bluetooth and simulated fondle gloves reach the market.
VR may even transcend entertainment to become the future of the workplace. There is no point travelling to a physical office when you can jack in to a realistic virtual representation of an office, complete with simulated motivational posters and an artificial intelligence that provides regular performance reviews and flaccid workplace banter. You won’t need higher wages, because you’ll be content to live in a poxy cupboard as long as it has room for your VR helmet and a fridge full of Slimfast shakes.
Okay, I’m curious. What do I need to have virtual reality in my home? What do the different brands mean?
At the moment, there are three high-end manufacturers of VR helmets: the Facebook-backed Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and Sony’s Playstation VR. The aims of each corporation are expected to influence the user experience, and will subtly skew the type of reality that is simulated. For example, Facebook will use Oculus Rift to steal your personal information and immerse you in a virtual world of baby pictures and racist urban legends, whereas Playstation VR will cost less but will be more skewed towards games and therefore less likely to offer the experience of Springwatch from the perspective of a mistle thrush. The Vive is marketed mainly at wealthy video-game obsessives, so it costs more but has far more realistic explosions.
The key thing to understand is that you’re going to need some sort of powerful computery box room to stretch out a great number of wires, and a lack of sharp objects in flailing range in your soon-to-be outdated physical reality. Also, despite the temptation to live the boring real world behind, you’re somehow going to need to maintain enough contact with genuine humans that somebody is willing to come and untangle you if you get too excited by a holographic simulation of Dancing on Ice and fall over.
I can’t afford all that. Is there a cheaper option, like those low-end smartphones that send all my credit card details to China?
Yes. For people who don’t necessarily have the budget to fill their house with high technology and fancy cables, there are also Samsung Gear and Google Cardboard, which offer a less-powerful VR experience simply by strapping your existing smartphone directly in front of your eyeballs and blocking out tedious distractions like children and traffic lights. Although this offers less realism than the high-end competitors, it does present a more realistic bridge between traditional and virtual reality by giving families a more immersive way to ignore each other whilst staring directly at Clash of Clans.