I finally just woke up to reality. Virtual reality.
Before you get me confused with a hardcore science and technology nerd, I'd like to point out that I still haven't seen the new Star Wars movie and I don't have a UNIX computer. I haven't played a video game since Nintendo 64. All that said, what I've discovered is that all you probably think you know about virtual reality has been rapidly evolving this year and it's set to alter your life in the immediate future. The way you get information, entertain yourself, shop and travel is likely to change.
If you're old enough to have seen The Net when it first came to theaters, you may remember being intrigued by this "Internet thing" that seemed to suddenly appear out of nowhere. Two decades later, we shop, meet people, watch movies, look up directions, read articles, and do pretty much every other activity that we used to have to drive somewhere to do—on the Internet. But not everyone jumped on the cyber-train in 1995 when we first heard about it (do you blame them after seeing what the Internet put Sandra Bullock through in The Net?). Some thought it was just a phase we were collectively going through. It quickly caught on however, and has been the biggest life-changer since the printing press. Well, I'm here to tell you: the next life-changer is here and it's virtual reality.
So what does this have to do with travel? If you've never tried out the Vive or Oculus Rift system, you should find someone who has it and experience it for yourself. As soon as you put the cabled headset on, you are immediately transported to another reality. Imagine taking a 3D IMAX movie and wrapping it around your head. Not only are you right in the middle of a virtual world that is frightening real, but you can move inside of this world and interact with characters and objects. You can visit virtual museums and go to places you've only dreamed about. The technology has been around for years, but we've only recently gotten to the point where computers are fast enough and high-end graphics cards are affordable enough that an average person can own a system.
The HTC Vive and Oculus were just invented and released this spring so if you haven't heard of them, you're not alone. Computer techies and serious gamers were the first to grab up the trickle of available sets, but now they are becoming easier to find on Ebay and electronic stores. I tried both for the first time a couple of months ago and was blown away. VR uses a proprietary network called Steam that organizes and runs applications where you can do things like painting in a 3D environment with impossibly cool colors and brushes and then walk into the middle of your art, animate it, and even toss it into the sky. You can take a ride in space or shoot zombies that will scare you even if you don't believe in zombies. Then there's theBlu: Whale Encounter. It's 90 seconds of standing underwater and watching a whale swim by. Doesn't sound exciting? It is so incredibly realistic that you might start worrying about running out of air underwater. In the VIVE system you can't see your body, but you can look around, look up, look down and the scenery is flawless. Tiny fish swim by you and dart around as if you are actually there.If you ever wanted to watch a whale underwater and don't want to have to get a SCUBA certification and book a trip to the Maldives, then VR is for you.
If you want something more affordable, check out the $15 Google Cardboard VR headset. Google has been laboriously recording the planet to create maps for years and suddenly realized that they've been simultaneously creating the ultimate database for virtual travelers. What they've put together is more than amazing and it's just going to get better as the medium becomes more mainstream. This is how it works: You put on your headset and you're standing in space. The earth is a giant blue ball spinning in front of you. All you have to do is use your controllers to pull the earth towards you, flip it around, and then navigate to anywhere you want to go. The headsets and controllers in the VIVE system have a tracking system that knows where you are so that when you look behind you, you can see behind you. Your controllers allow you to grab things and manipulate them almost as if your hands really existed in this virtual world. So, you're spinning the world around and feeling pretty powerful, right? It gets better. You pick a spot on the planet and fly there. Yes, fly.
As you get closer to the surface of the earth, you can see trees and buildings. It takes a few moments for the graphics card to render the details of the terrain, but you can fly about 100 feet above any place on the planet and see cars, statues, signs and everything else. The places you visit are based on images, so the rivers aren't moving and you won't see anyone walking around, so it almost seems like you're visiting a miniature of the place, but wow, what a miniature! I was in Florence recently and decided the virtual version of the renaissance city would make a good start for my explorations. I used the quick start menu to take a quick trip to the center near the Duomo. Once I started hovering over the city, I could see my hotel, restaurants where I had eaten, statues I'd photographed and was amazed that I could take a mind-blowing virtual trip from my new perspective in the sky. I was able to see the rooftops and terraces on buildings that I could never see from the ground. Next I visited the island of Murano in Venice. As I retraced my steps of a recent trip from above, I noticed that one of the glass factories on the island had burned and I could see the damaged roof while flying past it. It's better than having a drone; you are the drone. Imagine visiting any place in the world and flying there faster than Superman. And like many other Google products, it's free.
I couldn't resist taking a trip to my neighborhood and there it was: my house. I suddenly realized that my pool isn't quite as private as I had previously imagined and that my roof had a bunch of weird angles. It's cool being able to fly over your neighbors' backyards. Google VR allows you to point to a place and save it so you can find it quicker next time.
360 films are becoming more popular and are made for VR headsets to take you right in the heart of the action. Since they're films, you can't interact with the medium, but you can experience Saint Mark's Square, ride a roller coaster, take a gondola ride or experience other adventures around the world. These films are recorded with 360- or 180-degree cameras and allow you to look around, above and below. The action is happening all around you and is quite different than what you're used to watching, so following a movie might be challenging at first with all the head turning and spinning around you have to do to keep track of everything. Many of these short videos put you in the middle of a popular tourist site or city center and since things are going on around you, it's easy to feel like you're an invisible observer in a real place. High Definition 360 videos are at least five times as large as a regular video files, so it might take a few hours to download any hi-res files, but you'll see a big difference in the quality of your immersive experience. Low resolution looks very grainy on the headset and takes away from the realism. As cameras get cheaper,internet gets faster, and consumers embrace this new technology, there will likely be an explosion in new content and quality. Once you've spent any time in virtual reality, you'll find it difficult to go back to regular movies and video games.
We're at the beginning of a new wave of VR technology that's going to allow us to travel without leaving our homes. That can be life-changing for those who have mobility issues. For others, we can revisit former places we've traveled or do a little homework before we begin our next adventure.