Virtual reality vs. the real outdoors

Ian Carroll
 

The virtual world has virtually arrived. Most of us at Outdoor Revival have been spending our summers on the beach and our winters in the mountains. But while we did, a growing wave of excitement has been mounting in the technology sector. And it’s set to have a big impact on our entire way of life. Our time outdoors is no exception. Virtual reality is coming.

At 2017’s Game Developers Conference, the title for the best VR/AR game was given to Job Simulator. And it’s exactly what it sounds like; A virtual reality game where you go to work virtually. Flip burgers, assemble toothbrushes, file paperwork, you name it. Sounds fun right?

 

You virtually get your own desk and your own paperwork to complete. Really!

So what does that have to do with us outside? Like the invention of the television, the cell phone, or the touch screen, VR technology has us poised on a major cultural shift. The next offering from the same team that developed Job Simulator is called Vacation Simulator. And again, it’s just what it sounds like, virtual vacation. So what happens to the real vacation?

 

Virtual vacation or real?

 

Virtual reality technology

For now, it’s easy to pass these games off as just that, games. The graphics look like a cartoon world and the mechanics still feel very much like gameplay. It’s just a game, it could never approximate the real thing. That would be where you’re wrong, though.

 

A forest won’t be easy to recreate in the virtual world, but we’re going to try pretty darn hard.

Take, for example what Euclideon is doing to change that. They’re a little company based out of Australia, who is taking some big steps towards life-like graphics. They have also started building virtual reality rooms and video games to go with them.

Other companies have been working on VR treadmills so that you can move around in VR without dedicating an entire room to it. It’s quite the challenge, and if you’re interested, check out this video where Destin from Smarter Every Day looks at one of the latest advances in the field.

 

With haptic gloves you will actually be able to ‘touch’ the virtual world.

We’re not just exploring how to improve graphics and simulate movement in virtual reality, we’re even exploring how to create physical sensations in the virtual world. It’s called haptics (skip to 1:20). Accurate sense of touch, heat, wind even, are all on their way in VR video games. With each passing year, there are fewer and fewer factors separating the virtual world from the real one.

 

Some companies are exploring the possibility of full-body haptic suits.

So what happens when your friend asks you if you want to go for a virtual hike? Or perhaps go do some virtual yoga? Or make virtual love…? Yeah, there are going to be some big changes coming. And if you haven’t thought them all through, maybe it’s time that you started. Today we’ll cover not only some of the technologies at the front lines of VR, but also some of the dilemmas that will face future gamers, parents, and even governments in the coming decades.

 

VR video games

The first and most obvious application for virtual reality is video games. It’s a phase we entered decades ago, actually, and it’s fundamental to the development of the technology. In this early phase, companies are working on new, more advanced hardware and developers are furiously writing and rewriting software.

 

VR arcades are already opening up.

Gaming markets have grown ever since the first generations of game systems in the eighties. Today, video games and game systems are a multi-billion dollar market and they’re providing the playground for developers to gain their footing in the new world of VR. With each subsequent year, graphics are better, hardware is more robust, and public support of virtual reality video games grows.

 

It looks weird to most people still, and that’s one of the major barriers the VR industry is trying to overcome.

Today, VR video games and hardware are a bit of a novelty. You don’t meet many people that own or play VR games. Give it ten years though, and that probably won’t be the case. Don’t believe me? Just rewind ten years. It was only 2007, eleven years ago, that the iPhone1 was released. Back then, you probably hadn’t used an ‘app’ before, you probably still navigated using real maps. Heck, you didn’t even have Facebook yet.

 

Kids and parents

If you’re in my generation, you probably remember fighting with your parents over playing video games. Which ones were appropriate, and how much you were allowed to play, most parents just didn’t get it. After all, new and strange technologies have always made waves among older generations. VR isn’t likely to be any different. If anything, virtual reality is set to be more unsettling than any other technology to come before.

 

The vast possibilities of VR make some people afraid of how the technology will be used.

That’s because VR is a big departure from anything we’ve experienced before. The line between real life and the game grows thinner every year. The more virtually real a game gets, the more real it feels when you shoot your opponents, or crash your car, or hit hookers with baseball bats (we’re looking at you Grand Theft Auto…) The moral implications of this are big and mostly still unexplored.

 

The military is intentionally developing this technology to train soldiers in lifelike combat scenarios. Is that a technology you want to give to your kids?

Is there a line you don’t cross? At what point is content inappropriate to put into a virtual reality video game? When does it just get too real? And on the other hand, what is it about VR that makes it any different than violence in video games of the past? Those are all questions without clear answers, but they’re questions that we’re sure to run up against in the coming decade.

 

Pokemon Go was the first video game to cross the line in a big way, from the virtual to the real.

Because although video games are getting all the attention for now, there are other industries  with just as much invested interest in the technology. The military and adult entertainment industry are both prime examples. Each are already being revolutionized by virtual reality, for better or worse, and most people are likely to have strong feelings on the matter.

 

Schools, skills, and workspaces

Although there are some pretty controversial uses of VR technology, there are some that pretty much everyone agrees are great. Take how it’s being used by surgeons, for example. With virtual reality, surgeons can be trained in life-like situations with virtual patients doing virtual operations. Personally, I’d rather my surgeon practiced in VR than on me. It’s not just training, but development of new technology and techniques that can take place in VR too.

 

VR is already being used in the medical fields to help with education and development.

However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Job simulator may be a bit of a joke, but other simulators are on their way, and they won’t all be fun and games. Virtual reality presents the possibility of learning new skills from the safety and comfort of home. Learn to fly planes, or ride a snowboard, or play piano, all in virtual. Teachers could use VR video games to create learning opportunities for their students or to teach lessons that can’t be learned in their classroom. Class trips can go to the Taj Mahal now, not just the local science center.

 

Your kids might go see the great pyramids before you do. At least, virtually.

Beyond educational uses, the virtual world opens up countless possible virtual workspaces. Don’t just learn skills, but exercise, work on technical problems, and design solutions. After all, it’s a lot easier to get the framing for your house up in virtual where you can move lumber effortlessly, undo mistakes, and line up all your angles in advance. The implications for nearly every profession and craft are unique and exciting. Just imagine how virtual reality could be used to help you with your craft, hobby, or trade.

 

VR military training and VR torture

The dark side of this virtual future is fundamental to it’s success though. Unfortunately, one of the major sources of funding for virtual reality technology at this point is the military. Our government definitely doesn’t hold any illusions about the power of VR. It’s no secret that the military has already been using VR in training for years to simulate combat, interrogation, and more. However, the extent of this practice isn’t entirely disclosed.

 

The military has played a big role in the development of VR technology.

It’s not so controversial to train soldiers in virtual reality. After all, it’s a safer, and probably more successful way of training complicated skills in high pressure situations. The military has stated publicly that it intends to expand the scope of it’s VR training programs in the coming decade as well.

 

Training in VR is already common.

However, where the morals get muddy is when drones are piloted in VR, battles are fought in VR, and prisoners are tortured in VR. Because the terrible truth that humans demonstrate with technology over and over is that if we can, we will. So what happens when VR video games are controlling real instruments of death and killing real people? Anyone who has read or watched Ender’s Game or Altered Carbon is probably already thinking along those lines. It gets even more complex when we stop asking if it’s wrong or right and start asking if we even have the power to stop it from happening at all? After all, the ball is rolling and it’s not slowing down.

 

Life-like experiences

Perhaps the most relevant form of future VR is simpler than that though. VR has been used by the travel industry for a while now, but it’s poised for a big breakthrough. Building on the technology of Google Streetview, a lot of high-end hotels and travel agencies have started using VR to promote their packages, hotels, and trips. After all, it would be pretty nice to check out a hotel in VR before you plan your stay. Or heck, do away with the expensive trip all together and just take a virtual trip there for a fraction of the price.

 

With VR, it’s not so difficult to go somewhere incredible.

It’s already happening, and it might not be long before it’s the norm. And it’s not just the travel industry that could be revolutionized by virtual reality technology. Gyms, arcades, resorts, and schools, are just a couple of the other industries looking at revolutionary new possibilities.

 

Take a virtual tour of a far away city.

After all, if I could go to a climbing gym where I could virtually climb outdoors, that would be mind-blowing, and I would definitely pay for it. It’s already happening on treadmills that take you through Google Streetview trips on a touch screen display as you run. The treadmill adjusts it’s incline to simulate hills and you pass the sights as though you were there. With new virtual reality technology, you’ll actually bet there. So would you rather run around your neighborhood outside or run through the Peruvian highlands inside?

 

Flying is something safer learned in virtual reality, then attempted in reality.

Or suppose you want to learn a new sport or technical skill. Instead of having to learn to fly a parasail in real life, which is pretty dangerous, you can learn in virtual. That way, when you do fly, you already understand the mechanics and even the feel of flying. The same could easily be applied to a number of sports. Not far down this road we get to Olympic athletes training in VR. Oh wait, that’s already happening…

 

Augmented reality

Although we’ve been talking a lot up to now about virtual reality technology, that’s not the only option on the table. There’s another way to augment reality that has people in marketing especially excited. It’s simply named ‘augmented reality’ and the implications of it are both subtle and vast at the same time.

 

Augmented reality will unlock capability we haven’t even dreamed of yet.

All of the world’s top tech companies from Apple, to Google, to Samsung, are trying to reach for the next phone. Whatever technology replaces phones is going to be big, it’s going to change the world, and it’s going to be here before long. Every day, it’s looking more and more like augmented reality could be what ‘it’ is all about.

 

What happens when the virtual becomes real and the real becomes virtual?

In a sense, augmented reality is even more exciting, and more world changing than virtual reality. Augmented reality is the overlaying of virtual objects, information, or anything really, over the real world. Rather than wearing a big headset, you wear a pair of normal looking glasses. Lot’s of companies are charging full force at developing this tech because when it arrives, the implications are big.

 

It’s likely that in the near future, we’ll experience augmented reality with nothing more than a pair of glasses that look, well, normal.

With augmented reality, stores will have virtual adds out front. 3-dimensional holographic salespeople will welcome you at the door. Once your TV is all around you, so are your ads. Want to sell a Lamborghini? What better way than buckling people in to one in VR? It’s not just the adds, the Superbowl itself could be streamed to your table instead of your television. But what’s really exciting, is that the power of computing will be literally on your head, possibly even in your head. There are so many ways that could be awesome, despite having to deal with virtual ads.

 

Virtual reality, real dilemas

All of us who love the outdoors need to start to consider what we think of all this. We may not have to directly confront our feelings about VR torture, but we will come face to face with the VR outdoors. And each of us will have to decide what o make of it. At this point it feels a bit like a far flung futuristic novel. Some sort of dilemma I’d never have imagined could be real. But when the real world can be experienced virtually, what is real anymore anyways?

 

Why do we explore the world?

Do I love going on a hike because of being in nature? Do I love the physical aspect of it? What draws me to the mountains and why do I do what I do? If you could offer me all of those elements in a virtual world, would it be as good as the real thing? Will the fact that it isn’t the real thing always subtract from it’s value or could it even, one day, be better than the real thing?

 

What will you think when your kids start to live in the virtual world?

Will you be morally opposed to letting your kids go VR hiking instead of real hiking? Or do you see this future as another ebb in unending change? It’s hard to say from here how we each will welcome this new world.  

 

The future of virtual reality

After all, from where we now stand, it’s pretty hard to tell what that new world will look like. And I think what’s most important to remember is that like all things, virtual reality and augmented reality will be both good and bad. VR is only a technology and it’s up to us how we use it and how we let it use us. We get to draw the line where we want and it will probably be in a different place for everyone.

 

It’s unclear whether headsets like this will be around for the long haul.

Personally, I see a lot of incredible opportunity in the technology. Imagine overlaying botany textbooks over your hike, so as you go, plants are identified and you can pull up information about them at will. As a climber, with augmented reality I could literally save the moves of a route in the real world. When I get back on my project, each of my holds are marked with info about how I did each move before. Or if I’m looking at a new climb, I can overlay an app that tells me exactly what sizes of gear I need to take based on the sizes of the cracks in the rock. If I’m snowboarding, I can use an app to assess snowpack and the likelihood of avalanches on any given slope.

 

Virtual route-finding might take the fun out of it.

VR technology might not stay on the outside of your face either. There are a number of companies looking into the possibility of implanting chips straight into your brain, although a consumer version of that looks to be a ways off still. At the very least, I expect to see glasses shrink down to contact lenses within a decade.

 

Will virtual reality ever be able to replace this though? Not likely.

Whatever happens, one thing’s for sure, the virtual world is on it’s way. Whether you’re excited or repulsed by the idea, it’s not going to be just ideas for long. Pretty soon, the virtual will be a part of our everyday lives. We’ll all have to make some important choices about what it is we love so much about the outdoors, as well as how much of reality we are willing to sacrifice to the virtual world.

 

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