There’s an urban legend about the first moviegoers seeing a train on the big screen in 1896. As the audience viewed the Lumière brothers’ L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (Train Pulling into a Station), the film’s locomotive seemingly crashed down on them; myth says audiences abandoned their seats and cleared the theater to avoid the train’s presumed path of destruction. The nugget of truth in this tale is that three-dimensional video really did astound the people at the Lumière screening, but they by no means fled the theater in terror. First-time reactions to today’s VR (Virtual Reality) games are more well-documented, luckily for us and the sake of hilarity—tears, screams and bewilderment abound in countless VR reaction videos.
In 2014, The Nobel Prize was awarded for the discovery of GPS cells, neurons in the brain’s hippocampus responsible for processing information about location and environment. A recent UCLA study captured the VR community’s attention when it concluded that GPS cells go haywire in VR. In the experiment, mice appeared to operate normally, while brain scans showed them so unable to process location and environment that portions of the brain totally shut down. In presentations given around the country, lead UCLA scientist Mayank Mehta, PhD, compared the hippocampus to a symphony, balancing two complex and interrelated processes: rhythm and intensity. In VR, intensity drops off completely. Rhythm, by itself, cannot create a “cognitive map” of a location. The mice in the experiment couldn’t figure out where they were, and wouldn’t remember if you asked them. Scientists are still far off from understanding the brain in VR, but future findings have the power to rock the gaming industry.
Culture, Entertainment and Language
Eugene Capon received his degree in Film, YouTube and Physics from Evergreen State College (where students choose “areas of emphasis,” rather than a major) and dove into the early VR industry. When discussing my prior VR experiences, he asked me, “When you took the headgear off, did reality feel less real? That’s what happens to everyone their first time.” Eugene co-hosts Glitched, a talk show (in VR) currently entering its third season. Along with co-host Topher Welsh, Capon hosts the show on a virtual stage through look-a-like avatars, and their audience also attends in VR. You can see highlights at Capon Design TV on YouTube.
Eugene believes in a coming paradigm shift, where artists will create shows and even movies within VR and game engines. It’s much cheaper to produce, he argues, and the tech is advancing rapidly enough that people are watching more game engine-based entertainment. In the early 2000s, an Internet show, Red vs. Blue, gained notoriety for filming 100 percent within the Halo game engine. At the time, this hadn’t been done. Now, watching another human play within a game engine (called a “Let’s Play”) is a common form of entertainment, especially among children and gamers.
YouTube has evolved from its early history as an unstructured new space to a curated video platform that rewards content creators of a certain pedigree. It’s come so far that it’s become the home for kids to “YouTube and Chill,” as Red Cyborg, a cool fifth grader and avid gamer, recently told me. Cyborg spouted off more than ten YouTube channels he watches every day, including Let’s Plays, animations, reviews and tutorials. So much for Saturday morning cartoons!
While YouTube and Let’s Plays are now the norm, the nature of more experimental online VR communities remains problematic. These communities exist in an entirely new space without shared language, culture or structure. They offer the potential for unadulterated artistic expression, perhaps at the expense of a raw social experience. The future of VR is exciting, but is not without necessary examination.
Artist Tony Taj gave me a tour of 1408 Post Alley, an art gallery hosting various traditional and Mixed Reality (MR) artists here in Seattle. Tony imagines that hardware will reach a development plateau, and that our understanding of VR will evolve in such a way that talented artists can profitably create and sell “experiences.” Tony recalls eBay revolutionizing the art industry, and excitedly awaits the next wave with VR. “My art is always more impressive in person,” he acknowledges, “and I look forward to more artists adopting VR, so people can experience pieces the way they’re intended, from home. Art is an exciting place to be right now, because the gallery model is becoming antiquated.”
The Future is Now
During a particularly beautiful series of sunny winter days in the Pacific Northwest, I chatted with a friend at sunset, just downhill from Seattle’s Gum Wall. A loud rattling caught our attention and we craned our necks to see humankind strutting forward in its always-fashionable way. There stood a thick cloud of smoke. An elderly gentlemen with a close cropped beard, well-built and dressed 20 years his junior, emerged from the cloud. In one hand he held a hot vape pen; smoke trailed from his mouth and nostrils. In the other hand, a fresh bouquet of flowers from Pike Place Market. He zoomed by us on an electric skateboard, leaving us cracking up in his minty wake. The future is here, now. VR may seem too abstract to some, but if seniors can zoom by on futuristic boards while lighting up with an e-pen, anything is possible.