Newspaper article International New York Times

Virtual Reality Moves toward Mainstream

Newspaper article International New York Times

Virtual Reality Moves toward Mainstream

Article excerpt

Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab says virtual reality is the natural extension of the technology being used today.

The news that Facebook paid $2 billion for a virtual reality start-up, Oculus VR, might strike you as a bit zany.

Like flying cars and robotic maids, the idea of donning a pair of computerized glasses and slipping into a digital world feels like a snapshot from yesterday's future.

Is something so self-consciously geeky really worth billions of dollars? What would a nontechie nongamer do with virtual reality?

The answer: pretty much everything.

"I don't worry anymore about whether it will be accepted by the mainstream -- that will happen," said Jeremy Bailenson, a virtual reality researcher who directs Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Like many in his field, Dr. Bailenson argues that virtual reality technology is advancing so quickly that it is certain to infuse just about every corner of our lives. After trying out the technology in Dr. Bailenson's lab this week, I believe he is more right than wrong. Virtual reality is coming, and you're going to jump into it.

That's because virtual reality is the natural extension of every major technology we use today -- of movies, TV, videoconferencing, the smartphone and the web. It is the ultra-immersive version of all these things, and we'll use it in exactly the same ways -- to communicate, to learn, and to entertain ourselves and escape.

The only question is when.

Dr. Bailenson calls his lab's advanced VR rig "one of the most intense, immersive virtual reality experiences on the planet." In addition to running test subjects through the lab's technology to see how people respond to virtual environments, he regularly hosts business leaders looking to experience the future of virtual reality. Just a few weeks before Facebook announced the Oculus acquisition, Mark Zuckerberg, a co-founder and the chief executive of Facebook, dropped by for a visit.

This week, Dr. Bailenson offered a series of simulations similar to the ones Mr. Zuckerberg experienced. Sometimes his guidance was physical; when I "fell" into a virtual pit as I scampered across a virtual plank, my real-life body crumpled, and Dr. Bailenson had to catch me. By the end of the simulation, I was a little dazed, and my neck hurt from carrying the lab's five-pound, $30,000 goggles, which offer a far more realistic simulation than can be achieved with smaller, cheaper headsets, like Oculus's Rift.

But I was hooked, too. I had experienced how an immersive virtual reality simulator can play strange tricks on one's body, mind and mood. And I could see how Mr. Zuckerberg might have come away from the lab optimistic about the future of this technology.

As Dr. Bailenson pointed out in "Infinite Reality," a book he co- wrote about the future of VR, humans are an escapist lot. From books to movies to video games, whenever technology has presented us with ways to jettison our worries and slip into worlds of our own making, we have jumped at the chance. …

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