Keeping it real: What part does humanity play in virtual reality?

by Peter Griffin / 30 April, 2017

Actor Don Cheadle and others enjoy virtual reality on the cheap with Google Cardboard. Photo/Getty Images

As virtual- and augmented-reality apps swamp us, developers are urged to remember humanity.

In a technology-filled world, one of the few avenues left for a mind-blowing sensory experience – without resorting to drugs – is virtual reality.

My favourite tech trick is to casually strap a VR headset over the eyes of ageing family members and watch them spin around in dazed wonder as they explore a 360-degree underwater view of the Great Barrier Reef or find themselves transported back to the street where they grew up. I never tire of watching their reaction.

Then I came across an awe-inspiring story of culture intersecting with technology in a way I still struggle to comprehend. I watched a virtual-reality film of Nyarri Nyarri Morgan, an Aboriginal elder of the Martu tribe in the West Australian desert.

Morgan’s first encounter with white people and their technology was in the 1950s when, as a young man, he was hunting in South Australia’s northern desert. An apparition appeared on the horizon in the form of a massive mushroom cloud. He had unwittingly walked within range of the Maralinga nuclear test site.

“We thought it was the spirit of our gods rising up to speak with us,” says Morgan in Collisions, a 15-minute movie that tells the story of his brush with nuclear weapons and the parallels of that experience with his bid 65 years on to preserve his tribe’s culture.

Donning a VR headset to watch a movie is still an unusual and disorientating experience. But Collisions’ Australian director, Lynette Wallworth, who introduced the film at a screening at Te Papa, makes the most of the medium, including spectacular 360-degree drone footage of a controlled burn-off in the outback.

Her use of VR isn’t gimmicky; it’s designed to create an experience that mirrors Morgan’s desert awakening. I put down the headset after the viewing with a greater sense of the potential of the technology for influencing and preserving culture.

Te Papa was taken over by virtual- and augmented-reality (AR)prototypes and demonstrations that night. Wellington has become a bustling hub of creativity based on the technology. Weta is apparently working with the creators of Magic Leap, the as-yet-unreleased and much-hyped augmented-reality technology. Apple has opened an office in the capital to work on AR applications, and local start-up 8i has raised US$27 million ($38 million) to bring holograms into our lives. Victoria University’s school of design has geared up to supply graduates for the industry.

Another Aussie director, Mike Jones, who was showing VR Noir: A Day Before the Night, said the AR/VR industry has a “window of opportunity” for experimentation before commercial reality sets in. That’s likely to happen within a few years, when the industry is expected to reach critical mass with sales of 100 million headsets.

The easiest way to try VR is to buy Google Cardboard on Trade Me for $7 and fit the makeshift headset to an Android smartphone. A range of VR apps is available from the Google Play store. The Fire Service has one on its website (escapemyhouse.co.nz) that simulates the experience of fleeing a burning house.

Hollywood studios and Facebook are pouring money into VR, AR and so-called “mixed-reality” technologies, which blend physical and digital objects in real time. But in their rush to cash in, they need to remember the sensory power of the technology. “Does it uplift people or scare the shit out of them?” says Kat Lintott, the co-founder of Wellington creative video agency Wrestler.

Many of the games and videos developed in VR are designed to shock the senses. Lintott urges the industry to show some restraint. “We all have the responsibility to uplift humanity, to put the heart into virtual reality.”

This article was first published in the April 8, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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