Slam Dunks, Star Wars And Sex: How Virtual Reality Will Change It All

Mar 21, 2016

The Oculus Rift virtual reality gaming package drops March 28th.
Credit Bago Games

The annual Game Developer Conference took place in San Francisco this week. The conference added a track on virtual reality for the first time this year, and Reno Public Radio's Amy Westervelt strapped on a headset to check it out.

That's the trailer for EVE: Valkyrie, one of two virtual reality games that will come with the Oculus Rift headset when it’s released on March 28. The hotly anticipated virtual reality gaming package costs $599 and is expected to revolutionize not only games but film, advertising and more.

That's me slam dunking for the first time in my life, thanks to VR. Those sorts of aspirational experiences speak to the best side of the technology.

Howard Goldbaum , director of graduate studies at UNR's Reynolds School of Journalism, was a VR pioneer way back in the 1990s.

"It's a great way to put people into a space and let them explore it, in a way that you just can't do with any other medium. It's a great way to tell stories."

Filmmakers have also gone crazy for VR in recent years, with most studios launching VR departments if they didn't have one already. Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas' studio, showcased its latest virtual Star Wars experience, which will eventually be a part of the new Star Wars-land being built at Disney theme parks this year.

Despite the cool factor, virtual reality does have a dark side. In that Star Wars experience for example? You're handed a light saber to defend yourself against half a dozen storm troopers who are shooting at you. Pretty relentlessly. It's a little intense. As are first-person shooter games, which make up a fair amount of the initial wave of VR games launching this year. That’s not a popular topic in game land, but I asked the Oculus folks about it.

[me to Oculus guy]: Are people worried about the first-person shooters because they're so realistic?

Oculus guy: It's something we've always talked about and it's always been sort of guessed."

That could be a problem. Some research has shown that experiences in virtual reality get embedded in the brain in almost the same way as a real-life experience.

According to Neil Schneider, with the Immersive Tech Alliance, the industry is taking its role seriously and talking about ethics regularly. "I’ll give you an example - Sony actually just came out and put an age recommendation on its VR products of 12 or over, so it’s already taking steps to ensure age appropriateness."

And ethical concerns don't stop at violence. UNR's Goldbaum notes that, as has been the case with most other new media technologies, pornography is a major driver of the virtual reality industry. "I tell my photography students when Daguerre first came out with the Daguerreotype in 1838, within a month people were selling risqué daguerreotypes on the streets of Paris.”

And Schneider, with the Immersive Tech Alliance, says marketing is another area to sort out. "Because, you know, if you've got a headset on and you're in an experience, you can't really look away from an ad, so marketing in VR has been a big topic - a)whether it's effective and b) how to do it ethically."

Then there's the entirely new category of social VR. In social virtual reality experiences users can actually interact with each other in the virtual space. As more companies, ranging from Facebook to game developers, embrace social VR there's talk about how to deal with harassment. Patrick Harris, lead game designer for the company Minority Media, gave an entire talk on this at the conference.

"When you're in VR and someone's harassing you? You feel it.They step inside your personal space and you back up against the wall, and then you can't back up anymore."

To that end Harris and others are working on creating some best practices for developers -- things like not creating spaces where one player can be trapped by another. But ultimately developers can only predict so much about what will happen once VR goes mainstream. We'll all just have to wait and see.