For those of us who grew up begging and pleading with our parents for a Virtual Boy, virtual reality has long been the holy grail of gaming. Now, thanks to Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, and the HTC Vive that launched last month, we’re on the precipice of a brave new world full of mind-blowingly immersive VR experiences.
But virtual reality today is basically like the Internet in the 1990s; we've barely scratched the surface of what it can do. I chatted with Jody Medich, a Director of Design at Singularity University, a think tank for futurists founded by Ray Kurzweil. Up until recently, Medich was the principal user experience designer on the Microsoft HoloLens, so she's got a pretty good idea of where the technology is going. As you can probably imagine, shit’s about to get cray. Here's how virtual reality will change the world -- and your everyday life -- in the next five to 10 years.
Travel to international destinations -- and Mars, and space -- from your living room
OK, the technology to "visit" tourist hotspots around the globe using a headset like the Oculus Rift is already here. But that's nothing compared to what's coming next. "What's even more exciting is not just world travel, but universe travel -- traveling to Mars," said Medich. It seems totally plausible -- we have data from the Mars rover, and if indeed Elon Musk and SpaceX make it to the Red Planet by 2018, there will be more than enough data to get a complete picture of the surface. "I highly doubt that I’ll ever be able to walk on Mars, but with VR I can get a visceral sense of being there, even though I don't have the constraints of a special respirator or suit."
Indeed, VR will feel so real, it will effectively imprint a memory into your mind that we were actually there. Medich explained that we use our visual senses to activate 85% of our innate cognitive ability -- or in other words, what we're seeing at any given moment determines our perception of reality, and our brains automatically fill in the gaps to make it feel as if we're viscerally present. "You can feel as if you’re traveling to Venice, or Sierra Leone, or Mars. Your brain will create spatial memories the same way as if you had physically been there, which is pretty remarkable."
Attend any sports game or concert with a VR ticket, and get the best seat in the house
Virtual reality is also on track to transform the way we experience live events, concerts, and sports. Beyond having a seat closer to the action, VR innovators are developing ways to bring you onto the field itself. "You can actually feel like you’re one of the players, and you can turn your head around and see all the other players too," Medich told me. "Being able to actually hear the calls first hand, and see the passing happen first hand -- I don’t even think we understand yet how that's going to change the experience of game play."
The same goes for big concerts and festivals. In January, IHeartRadio and Universal Music Group announced that they plan to bring "immersive VR experiences" to concerts at some point this year; meanwhile, Live Nation and NextVR just struck a deal to broadcast hundreds of concerts in VR -- offering people who can't afford a ticket to the actual show a chance to get in on the action. As Medich explains, front-row center won't be the best seat in the house for long: "Just imagine you can be on stage with Katy Perry. You’re standing next to her while she performs, and look out at the crowd and feel that surge of adrenaline that comes from being in front of that many people."
Never have to travel for work ever again
Rather than schlep to Cincinnati or Tokyo for face-time with clients, VR is going to take video conferencing to the point where it's just as good, if not better, than in-person meetings. Instead of writing "do not erase" on a white board or furiously scribbling down notes to remember important details, you would be able to queue up and replay particular moments from meetings on-demand. "I could just unfurl that white board in my virtual space, [and] jump back to that specific moment when we came to some conclusion or some huge idea came out," Medich explains. "That's a huge opportunity and it would eliminate a lot of that need for travel."
Recover from medical issues and nasty injuries by "retraining your brain"
There's a ton of game-changing medical tech coming down the pipeline, and VR is definitely a player. Studies have shown that VR can be used to reprogram our brains, reigniting neuroplasticity and retraining our synapses to adjust to new circumstances. That has huge implications for how we'll treat people with chronic conditions and debilitating injuries -- it's already being used to treat stroke patients and people with Parkinson's, helping them take back control of their mobility.
VR has also been shown to be an effective pain management tool in instances where morphine isn't enough. Medich told me about experimental trials being done at the University of Washington, in which burn victims are shown a VR visualization of a "snow world" -- an all-out winter wonderland with snowmen and penguins and ice. It tricks their brain into thinking the burning sensation they feel is actually just extreme cold -- and yeah, that's not all that great either, but it's shown to provide three times as much relief as morphine.
You'll go to VR cafes or theaters in the short term...
You may be wondering, are people going to be VR-ing like maniacs in public? Probably not right away. As Medich notes, being fully immersed in a VR headset (or surrounded by people who are) is a little disconcerting: "As a woman, I don’t think I will feel safe being in a public place completely in an isolation chamber, which is basically what you have to do with VR. I have a hard time imagining that I’m going to feel comfortable walking into Starbucks and putting on my VR gear." Instead, VR-specific venues will likely crop up. "I can imagine a movie theater type of situation, where you go some place to do this type of activity and it’s expected that everybody there is ‘plugged in.’"
But the tech is only going to get smaller, faster, and more sophisticated
As VR becomes more ubiquitous and acceptable in public spaces, we're going to need to lay down some ground rules and etiquette to avoid the whole "Glasshole" problem that shamed Google Glass users. Thankfully, headsets are already getting smaller; Medich thinks that in five to 10 years, the intersection between virtual and augmented reality will allow for personal wearables that are much less obtrusive (and less obnoxious), while "room projections" will take on a lot of the heavy lifting. Eventually, wearable VR devices might be small enough to sit on our eyeballs: "I would imagine in 10 years we’re going to be talking about contact lenses." If recent news is any indication, she's probably right.