A dive into virtual reality

As technology continues to change our lives, here’s what greater accessibility in virtual reality and the metaverse could mean for society.

The arrival of the digital age brought a new era of technological advancements, and the impacts have been enormous. The once-wired phone is now an entire computer right in the palm of your hand, able to take calls from anywhere. Gone is the age of analog watches; a newer, sleeker model could perform countless tasks right on your wrist.

The goal? Improve and expand upon the now obsolete technology with modernized features. Instead of putting the time and energy into writing and delivering a letter, why not just send a quick text message to anyone around the world? Humans’ desire for improvement — the need for the next big thing — will always be there.

That next big thing is here, and visionaries have set their eyes on something deemed unattainable before: a completely digitalized world with limitless possibilities. This concept is coined virtual reality or VR.

You might recognize the “VR Headset” — often seen as a rectangular box that sits snugly over your head, displaying a screen so close to your eyes that your vision is engulfed by the simulation. Think of any environment; a lush, dense forest filled with numerous kinds of plant and animal species or a vast galaxy brimming with stars and planets. Virtual reality isn’t tied to the limits of real life, allowing for unique opportunities that normally wouldn’t be possible without this technology. 

Alongside the headset, you’ll usually be provided with specific controllers that roughly imitate hand movement. This lets you interact with the environment directly, like picking up and using certain objects. But because these controllers are just basic representations of the human hand, the flexibility of what you can do is limited to certain buttons and movements. This can be expanded upon with time, and numerous startups have already begun working on creating more realistic body movements. 

HaptX aims to recreate the sensation of touch through a wearable device that can send a variety of feedback to the hand, paired with a resistive force system that gives the impression that you’re clutching an object. Leap Motion is a new startup working on a completely hands-free device that uses ultrasound waves to create tactile sensations in the hand. 

The concept of augmented reality, or AR, has also been tossed around in relation to VR. Augmented reality layers computer-generated aspects into the real world, kind of like an addition to what already exists in our world. Prominent examples include Pokemon Go and Snapchat filters. While VR puts you into an entirely new 3D environment, AR adds to what’s already there. When combining the two, you’ll get mixed reality or MR. Mixed reality blurs the line between what exists and what doesn’t by integrating 3D environments and objects into real space. 

For example, take the new Varjo XR-3 mixed reality headset, or the Quest Pro. It is similar to a normal VR headset in form factor, but with cameras on the front that allow you to view your physical environment. Through this live video pass-through, 3D objects and environments can be incorporated into your vision for a more realistic experience.  Imagine standing in your living room with half of the objects being tangible and the other half being completely virtual.

The research into these other fields has only begun. Despite its growing popularity, the VR industry is still relatively niche, marketing originally as a gaming device for those willing to try out the new hardware. Many relate VR to video games, but this undersells the full capabilities of the technology. Until now. 

Enter Meta, formally known as Facebook, one of the pioneers of social media and an influential global tech giant. The growing field of VR piqued their interest, leading to an approximately $2 billion deal to acquire Oculus, the most popular producer of VR headsets in the industry. But why does a social media company want anything to do with gaming headsets? CEO of Meta Mark Zuckerberg views the acquisition as more than just entering the gaming market. 

After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home,” Zuckerberg wrote in a 2014 Facebook post.

Virtual environments aren’t confined to what’s possible in the real world, giving you the freedom to be anywhere, with anyone.

“This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures,” Zuckerberg said.

This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”

— Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta

It would take a couple of years before this vision was officially introduced to the public, but in 2021, Zuckerberg announced the future of the company to the world: they would now be rebranded as Meta to align with their new interests. Along with the brand change, a sneak peek into this “new communication platform” was given, a concept called the metaverse.

“The defining quality of the metaverse will be a feeling of presence — like you are right there with another person or in another place. Feeling truly present with another person is the ultimate dream of social technology,” Zuckerburg wrote in a proceeding founders letter. “That is why we are focused on building this.”

Meta claims that the metaverse will not be created by one single entity. Rather, it will be a collaborative platform open to anyone. Ross O’Dwyer, Director of Engineering at Oculus, agrees with this sentiment. 

 “I think it’s going to be much less controlled by one entity. The piece that will be interesting to see is how formats develop over time, to be able to provide the ability for you to move from one representation of the metaverse to another,” O’Dwyer said. “If you think about common web pages now in the future, the next iteration of the internet will be this metaverse and the ability for you to move between these different experiences as if they are web pages with other people.”

If you think about common web pages now in the future, the next iteration of the internet will be this metaverse and the ability for you to move between these different experiences as if they are web pages with other people.”

— Ross O'Dwyer

Since the announcement, Meta has invested more than $10 billion into creating the metaverse. With one of the biggest tech companies in the world staking billions into a theoretical integration of VR into society, more and more eyes have been drawn to this new market. Other large companies such as Google, Microsoft, NVIDIA and Amazon are already implementing plans to get involved with both virtual reality and the metaverse.

With the spotlight now on VR, competition and innovation will gain traction, improving the capabilities of the tech in the coming years. More competition means more research and lower prices, giving consumers further incentives to buy the products. The previously mentioned development of digital senses will continue to be revised, intending to make virtual worlds even more realistic. 

As it stands right now, many of these advancements are far into the future, but there are already instances of organizations using VR to improve their current services. The National Library of Medicine performed a study on a multitude of medical groups, testing virtual reality to try and improve the performance of standard medical procedures. The conclusion was that the application of virtual training played an important role in instructing crucial techniques by adapting and personalizing the experience for each individual.

This isn’t just limited to fully virtual simulations; the usage of AR can also provide excellent learning experiences as well.

“You can see [education] continuing through AR,” O’Dwyer said. “So let’s say you want to sit down and you want to learn the piano. Well, imagine if you sat down at the piano, and you put on the headset and it shows you your piano and you can see your hand that overlays where your fingers should go, it overlays the notes and it teaches you the match between the notes on the keyboard and the notes on musical sheeting, and it corrects you as you’re going and it can give you guidance.” 

Besides optimizing specific jobs and recreational usage, companies are also considering the economic benefits of the devices. Walmart is looking into opening virtual stores within a digitalized environment, akin to shopping at an actual retail store with physically tangible objects. With this trademark, consumers would be able to purchase virtual goods, like digital art, as well as real-life products; like buying something on their website, but in a 3D environment.

Nike is trying something similar, having filed multiple trademarks to sell and distribute virtual goods akin to their shoes, eyewear, accessories and more inside of online and virtual worlds. They’ve even begun collaborating with services similar in practice to the Metaverse, like Roblox; an exclusively digital platform with overarching shared worlds, its own currency and an economy to go along with it. 

Nikeland is a free game on Roblox where you can play various minigames to earn Nike-themed clothing items to wear for your character, which can be used in any of the other experiences in Roblox. This works as advertising for Nike as a brand, especially as more and more people sign up on the platform. This same concept can be applied to virtual reality, especially with the current metaverse-driven goals. Companies can pay to have their advertisements shown within the various worlds, driving more sales in the real world and any digital products they make.

This is all new territory for both consumers and companies; as with any new form of technology, some are considering the negative effects of a VR-integrated society. With mental health continuing to decline in the U.S, especially post-pandemic, the fear that virtual reality may only further isolate us from real human contact has become a concern. O’Dwyer views the situation through a different lens.

“The reality is, it’s got to be a balance, but for many people, stepping into VR is not isolating yourself. It is experiencing new realities with other people. You are engaging with others,” O’Dwyer said. “Then you’ve got Rec Room, you’ve got VR Chat and you’ve got a range of these different experiences which bring people together, which allow you to build connections with others.” 

“The reality is, it’s got to be a balance, but for many people, stepping into VR is not isolating yourself. It is experiencing new realities with other people. You are engaging with others.”

— Ross O'Dwyer

While we may not see the results of VR and metaverse integration within the general public for quite some time, this new technology has already made leaps from where it was a decade ago. Where developers take it next remains to be seen.

“The path to success of the metaverse in the long term is being able to create opportunities for you to build real and meaningful connections with other people. And if we don’t do that, then we’re not going to succeed,” O’Dwyer said. “It can just be tricky for [people] to find like-minded people. I think this is what we saw with the early advent of the Internet, that a lot of people who may have felt isolated in the past or couldn’t find people that they identified with were able to find communities and really feel whole and what they were trying to achieve much more easily.”