Remember that awful film The Lawnmower Man from the early 90’s? Well… it’s here, Virtual Reality that is, not the retina shattering bad graphics, dreadful music or - thank God - Pierce Brosnan. We now have the technology to totally immerse a person in a fully computer generated environment, and boy o boy is it fun! BUT VR isn’t just one thing, and this series of blog posts will unpeel the different layers of the concept, the tech and the hardware players for you.

Firstly I will nail my colours to the mast here and proclaim I am a VR enthusiast. As a filmmaker I’m excited about the new content and production process, and as a human about the potential the technology has to improve every aspect of our lives, from sex to education to entertainment and work.  From Google Cardboard to Magic Leap, we’re uncovering some exciting stuff, and it’s only just getting started.

Like every new technology, VR has quickly accumulated a lot of jargon and misconceptions around it though, so it’s useful to begin from the beginning and get our terminology straight:

The VR acronym itself is bandied about everywhere, as brands caught on to the fact that it makes them sound cool by association. It stands for – as I’m sure most of you know – Virtual Reality. This is a concept that we’ve been aware of for decades, but has only recently transitioned from movies and experimental labs into our day-to-day lives. It’s essentially understood as a technology that transports us out of the real world and into a digital one. This is broadly correct and conjures up scenes from films such as The Matrix’ or aforementioned The Lawnmower Man where you plug your body into a network and are sucked into another, digital world where rules such as gravity, size and mass don't apply (or at least not in the same way). But the truth is that there is a lot of variation that is swept under that broad definition of VR and they amount to very different technologies and experiences, some of which are already possible and some of which are just over the horizon.

True VR

Lets get the true VR out of the way first so we can better understand the alternatives. It is actually impossible to show an example of this via YouTube or similar as it is a unique immersive experience achieved through wearing a stereoscopic headset but rendered as a 2D video looks like this.

Through a headset each eye receives a separate image, each with is a different angled view of the computer-generated environment, mimicking the way our eyes view slightly different angles or the real world. Close one eye, then the other and objects will slip from side to side. Our brain combines these two images into an immersive world through which we can move. Because true VR is basically the digital equivalent of that, it is only viewable through a headset that splits the image in that way, so a computer monitor or phone screen can’t do it on its own. In the video above you can see developers in action, bringing your hands into that type of virtual environment using the Oculus Rift.

360 Video

This is also often referred to as VR, but unlike true VR you are able to experience 360 video on any device even without special glasses. Since YouTube started offering native support for this new format, everyone started jumping on that bandwagon, which means there’s a load more content to choose from. Most of it misses the point though, which is to give you a reason to look around and encourage interaction. Below are some of the good examples I found that make best use of the medium.

These two music videos approach the 360 environment in very different ways; the Noa Neal video simply uses a 360 camera and tries to fill all the space with action and movement, it is a simple idea but very effective. The Chapita video is a computer generated blend with 360 video and is much more experimental in its technique. I think the latter is more successful in utilizing the 360 environment and engaging the viewer to look around and feel involved.

AR and MR

AR stands for Augmented Reality and involves overlaying artificial computer-generated elements onto the real world. It blends elements of VR into those real-world images in a way that augments it. Think Tom cruise in Minority Report. Companies such as Magic Leap are taking that concept to new and amazing levels, so much so that the term Mixed Reality has emerged to describe it a separate category. The underlying principle is exactly the same (mixing real-world and virtual elements) but if you’re talking about Mixed Reality these tend to be more elaborate, although there is no real hard-and-fast rule and many people do use the two terms interchangeably. Below are a couple of examples of AR.

New Yorker magazine AR, view on Nexus site >here<

The Nexus-produced New Yorker magazine AR video shows how a phone or an iPad can be used to activate and engage with AR content and is a very nice example of where the tech is at right now. The Magic Leap demo is a tantalizing glimpse of what’s to come though, and I for one can’t wait!

That’s it for the first blog in this series. Next time I’ll go into more detail on the techniques involved in producing VR and AR content and how these effect the experiences you get.  If you have any questions give me a shout on Twitter @R3Digital and I will do my best to answer them! I would also love to hear from you if you have examples of this tech in action that you want to share. Also take a look below at these excellent infographics from Manatt Digital Media that explain more about this new market and the movers and shakers in the sector.