michael naimark

Why VR Headsets Will Stick

Michael Naimark

musings before a keynote at
the first International Symposium on Immersive Creativity
May 2014


“I’ve taken the red pill,” says Michael Naimark, a veteran of Apple, Lucasfilm and the MIT Media Lab and frequent skeptic of this field. “VR headsets are here to stay.”
--- Cover story on Palmer Luckey and VR, Forbes, January 2015 (added March 2015).

With Facebook's recent 2 billion dollar acquisition of virtual reality headset maker Oculus Rift, "VR" has entered the limelight with a voracity unseen in 25 years. You may have seen photos of mostly young male gamers wearing these bulky devices and think they look stupid, scary, or useless. But it's a safe bet that VR headsets are both inevitable and not as bad as you might think, especially when compared to watching television.

First, as an FYI, I've never been a big fan of personal head-mounted displays. My practice has largely been based on quite the opposite: producing social, public space, immersive installations, where folks leave their homes to be physically co-present with others, much in the spirit of 19th Century Cycloramas, whose imagery was generally realworld rather than fantasy based.

For those who haven't yet experienced virtual reality headsets like the Oculus, there are some fundamentals you need to know. First, the image is both very wide-angle and stereoscopic: frameless and 3D, just as your eyes see now. Second, the images are scaled correctly. The technical term for this is orthoscopy, and the punchline to a Picasso anectode, after a critic shows the artist a small photo of his girlfriend, is "she's beautiful but she's so tiny!". In VR parlance going back now 25 years, this combination is called "wide-angle ortho-stereo", and it is almost never experienced in conventional media.

But the clincher, particularly for first time users, is what happens when you move your head and look around. The image updates its viewpoint accordingly: you look left ninety degrees, the image pans left ninety degrees. Words don't do justice to this experience. It feels both magical and so natural that one wonders how we could view images without it. Two newly ubiquitous technologies are required. First, the imagery must exist for these extended viewpoints, ideally as full 360 degree panoramas. With 3D computer models such as those used in video games, this is merely a matter of programming. But for camera-based imagery, e.g., cinema, some kind of panoramic camera must be used, ideally a 3D one. Second, the position of the user's head must be quickly and accurately tracked. Years ago, such sensors were expensive and slow, resulting in illusion-busting "lag". Today, they are so cheap and fast that they're built into most smart phones.

Putting it all together, VR headsets provide wide-angle ortho-stereo imagery complete with "lookaround". Headphones can provide an equally spatial audio experience, and for those interested in gaming and other forms of interactivity, there are a variety of inexpensive input devices ranging from game controllers to emerging, more intuitive hand, eye, arm, and body position sensors. It's important to understand that this level of immersion is impossible, or at least highly impractical, to create any other way (think flight simulators, giant theaters for one!). For this reason alone, VR headsets are here to stay. They will shrink to the size of common eyeglasses (we will not discuss invasive implants here, that's another story), and will be relatively cheap.

But for what, you may ask? In monitoring both the Oculus Developer's website and Google News Alerts for Oculus, something curious can be seen. "99.9%" of all the talk on the developer's site is about gaming, for gamers by gamers. But much, if not most, of the news chatter about Oculus, including by both insiders and pundits, is around non-gaming experiences such as cinema, virtual travel, live teleconferencing, and shared imaginary worlds. Huge disconnect! VR headsets may well be the "killer tech" that expands the province of "games" to broader, more diverse audiences and applications.

Consider this scenario. You're at home with your family sitting together in the living room and you all have on VR headsets and earphones (wait, don't stop reading yet!). But you're all in the same virtual world. It could simply be the same immersive movie simply watched immersively. Again, there is no other way to achieve this level of VR. You can still hear each other, touch each other, and eat popcorn together, like watching television (albeit in a darker more muffled room). It's tempting to believe that everyone is more engaged. Anthropologist Margaret Mead once observed in large photo sets that families watching television together look jumpy and rigid, while families reading together show a sense of community and relaxation. Perhaps this VR headset experience is a little more like reading than television watching. And for those of us who are fans of Sherry Turkle's "Alone Together," it's not clear who's more alone, TV watchers or co-present VR immersents.

Of course, everyone in the same virtual experience need not be physically co-present and everyone in the same physical space need not be in the same virtual experience. But VR enthusiasts will tell you that simply navigating through a fixed-narrative immersive movie is just the beginning. For cinema, a new language will need to evolve, perhaps one that's more intimate, for example, with characters filmed in first-person perspective looking directly into the camera. More immersive games are a given. And last week, an Oculus executive hinted that Facebook's acquisition of his company leads the way for a "billion person MMO" (massively multiuser online community), where people can interact with each other (via avatars) and "jump in and out of this new set of virtual worlds."

As for me, I still revel in good largescale public space immersion, appreciate realworld content as well as fantasy content, and prefer being challenged by difficult art more than engaging in games with simple win/lose endings. I'll continue to explore these domains. But I'm writing to let you know that the technologies and scenarios outlined here are inevitable, that they provide unique and powerful new ways for expression and interaction, and that once you try them, you will probably agree.