When I first heard about Virtual Reality, or VR, I had some trepidation. Now, it’s not just some exciting concept of the 90’s that is an object of our phantasy in cyberpunk literature and films. I feared people would start replacing real experiences with the virtual even more than they do now. I imagined an occurrence I had while working at a museum as an educator when both a father and an around 11 year old son walked in with their Google Glasses. I thought, wow, this is the future of the disconnected elite. They seemed like very nice people, but it felt sticky. (Why is a $1000ish device that probably isn't for health in the budget for a tiny human?!)
Additionally, I was not convinced that VR would be well developed as it first emerged in its infancy. Perhaps a bit boring and pixelated, full of loops and weird bugs. That alone makes me keenly aware of my privelege...what a first world concern and how pretentious-sounding. Nonetheless, the more I heard about it, the more I warmed up to it. One friend in particular sang its praises, and it got me thinking about its potential.
And yeah, I one hundred percent fell for the "cool" factor eventually and stopped being such an odious, arse about it. Video games are fun and won't ruin our lives. In fact, many can be educational and increase our mental acuity in doses.
Then I thought, you know, I spend my money on some frivolous shit for which people would and do give me judgement. Who am I to judge some tech employee who wants to give his son a cool gift simply because he can? It certainly doesn't hurt him, and maybe he'll learn valuable lessons. What's important is how we teach our children to treat one another, right? (There is a conversation I could have about class privilege, health, and wearables, but that is a future article!)
So, I took the plunge. Recently, I picked up a pair of affordable goggles by I AM Cardboard, and they are amazing. I don't have any other experience with VR, but I can tell you that I feel like I have an immersive experience, I can use a headset with them, they feel durable, and I can take them everywhere. I was getting a new phone anyway, so I decided to go with a Google phone, the Nexus 5x. Now I'm having a grand ole Google time. It's like I'm back in San Jose or something! (Let’s not make the Silicon Valley a virtual experience...) More importantly…
VR will allow enriching experiences to individuals with chronic, debilitating conditions they would normally not enjoy who spend most of their time in their homes or hospitals. It's a safe place to socially interact with new people or connect with far-away loved ones. Other applications are anxiety reduction and somewhat contrarily, exposure therapy. One could escape to relax or face fears in a controlled environment.
As I inferred earlier, I thought it was only for the tech elite in the Silicon Valley. Then I met Google Cardboard, both an app and actual cardboard 3D-VR viewer. The device is priced at about $15, and Google opened the app to more hardware developers, so now the Google Store has a variety of other Cardboard enabled devices. I bought one of those, by I AM Cardboard, the plastic, collapsable, DSCVR, a more stylish and durable option than its counterparts yet still affordable at about $30. It comes a variety of colours and has a protective case that's convenient for slipping in a purse.
The Cardboard enabled devices avoid head straps for comfort reasons. If one were so inclined, they could get crafty, but be careful. If you have upper motor difficulties or pain in your upper body, shop wisely, a strap will be important.
The DSCVR works with any phone that can run the Cardboard app. (I believe, make sure to check compatibility on their website.) You position it into the back of the device, making sure it's free of fuzz and other debris with a gentle cleaning cloth, then stretch over the silicone strap, and snap it into place. There is a single button that you will use when playing which is an intermediary between your finger and your phone. It is the selector throughout most apps.
You'll also want to make sure that the app is loaded on your phone correctly before you get it strapped in. You might need to make some selections or figure out how to orient it. Then, once it's in, adjust it to your vision. At first, you might be seeing slightly double as if your stigmatism worsened, or maybe only a bit fuzzy. Move it right, then left, slowly, until you find the perfect picture. Then, escape into a magical world!
Where do you find the games, educational ventures, and other interesting apps? In the Cardboard app, it will take you to their suggestions, but you can make your own queries as well. In your store, search:
-Cardboard [insert your interest here]
-VR [insert your interest here], and make sure it's enabled for your device
To start, if you have a Cardboard device, try VTime. (It works with others too!) It's a social app, but you can play alone if you like seeing the sights solo. You can go to space, see the Aurora Borealis, sit peacefully underwater with some big fish, hang on the side of a cliff, and more! You can even meet new friends or just practice getting out of your comfort zone chatting with people. It's really your voice too! You make an avatar, your mouth will move, and your hands gesture.
Some VR devices don't work with a phone. They will use the computer or a video game system instead. You can pay as little as $15 or as much as in the $1000s. Do your research carefully.
How an image can become 3D in this situation on a very basic level is the following:
-It starts with two identical 2D images that are side by side.
-Lenses adjusted to human eyes magnify the images, "trick" our eyes, and we think we see depth. Have you ever crossed your eyes while reading to see the words on the page "move around?" If you were ever really bored, you could control where they went a bit, right? (I am a complete professional and never did this during meetings when I started daydreaming...)
-The artists and engineers creating these devices and apps for us adjust the images to a science. When we put on the goggles, they overlay and create a sense of depth. The hardware and software go hand in hand. The lenses need to be at just the right focal length, or it's going to look pretty wonky when you use the goggles.
If you'd like an in depth explanation of some VR terms, this guide is helpful, though not favourable to Cardboard.
Trust me, Cardboard is cool. The purism and elitism that happens in hobbyist communities occasionally is ridiculous. Just have fun! Escape into an exciting new world! As a person with chronic, debilitating conditions, this is a lifesaver. I get to be somewhere else except the confines of my apartment and see beautiful places I could never actually go. Finally, a respite, and when I want it, a little social interaction.
Do what you like. Do what makes you happy. Do what brings you relief, that is kind to your body and spirit. Remember to keep balance, and make good with your ability today!
Sorel Estrada Volpe