• How Virtual Reality Can Improve Our Quality of Life

    During 2020 we all had our ups and downs. For me personally I had a very frustrating summer trying to figure out how to switch my virtual reality (VR) building activities from one type of VR headset (the Vive) to another (the Quest 2). Then in the autumn trying to crack the technical aspects of making multiplayer VR experiences that are properly synchronised nearly broke me. But it all came together at the end of the year and now I’m building freely, turning out projects at a rapid pace. So I cannot tell you how glad I was to learn that the year I just spent consolidating the knowledge I gained in my 2020 VR Master’s Degree concluded with a Christmas that saw more VR headsets reach people in their homes than ever before.

    Why now, after so many false dawns? Well, with a price tag of £300 the Quest 2 finally enables people to experience VR in the comfort of their own homes at an accessible price point. It’s as simple as that. For comparison, when I got my first Vive headset 5 years ago it cost £500, but needed a £2,500 personal computer to plug it into. This put off all but the most determined back then, but now Oculus has dispensed with the need to be attached to an expensive computer and “lighthouses” that send infrared signals to the Vive headset from each corner of the room, the cost of access to the wonderful world of VR has dropped by a whopping 90% in just 5 years (£3,000 to £300). It just didn’t makes sense for me to keep building only for the Vive when there would be so many people out there in the world at large who only have access to a Quest 2.

    At a fraction of the price, most VR developers are moving from the Vive to the Quest 2

    Another advantage of building for Quest 2 rather than Vive was that I could finally start making multiplayer experiences and then get my friends and family members involved in co-creation by being with them in VR to show them around. Finding £300 to buy a second Quest 2 headset was clearly going to be more viable than finding another £3000 to buy another Vive Pro plus graphics PC (which, to be clear, I never even considered). Given rumours that it must be being sold at a loss, probably in order to derive additional value from the data it can collect on you, it seems that Mark Zuckerberg is investing heavily in planting lucrative seeds that will not doubt yield a bumper crop of many millions of human beings being introduced to the wonders of VR via his very own walled garden.

    The latest data suggests that I’m not the only person to find the price point of the Quest 2 irresistible given that the 2021 Christmas period saw nearly 650,000 downloads of the Oculus app (required to get the VR headset ready to roll), up from ~250,000 in 2020 and 100,000 in 2019 and ~50,000 in 2018. And as those who didn’t get a Quest 2 for Christmas becoming increasingly envious of the fun everyone else seems to be having, it seems likely that an even larger number of people will be putting it on their gift list for next year.

    Many VR experiences allow people to feel virtually present in the company of others

    The reason that a neuroscientist like me gets so excited about virtual reality, while flat screen gaming leaves me completely underwhelmed, is its potential for helping people improve their quality of life. It is a medium that naturally lends itself to social experiences that trick the senses into helping people feel like they are in the same physical space as others, even when separated by hundreds if not thousands of miles. It enables a level of intimacy that goes way beyond what a mere phone call or videoconference can achieve in terms for making people feel genuinely in the presence of others and therefore less socially isolated. Regular followers of this blog (and readers of my book The Science Of Sin) will already know that social isolation is really bad for a person’s physical and psychological health, which means that any medium that can enhance a person’s sense of social connectedness will likely do the opposite: namely, improve their physical and / or mental health. But not all VR worlds are born equal in this regard.

    Rec Room is a free VR experience that enables people to play various games with others. 5 years ago it was full of interesting adults from all over the world which I just couldn’t get enough of. Sadly these days it’s full of sweary loud mouthed little kids who are so irritating that I now give it a wide berth. I find exactly the same problem with altSpace and VR Chat. Now it may be that I’m not going to the right places in these these labyrinthine multi-worlds and that like-minded others are in there somewhere. But if you stumble around blindly like I’ve been doing, the chances are you’ll come out of it feeling more socially disconnected than you were before you went in.

    5 years ago Rec Room was an amazing social VR space. Now it’s full of obnoxious children.

    The safest bet is to use one of the VR experiences that enables you to create a private room in a very straightforward and intuitive way. Walkabout Mini-Golf does this particularly well, in my opinion. You simply select “Private Room,” create a name for your very own private room and share the name you’ve chosen with whoever else you want to join you for a few holes. They simply go through the same procedure and (so long as they’ve spelled it correctly) they’ll find themselves in the same virtual space as you.

    I did this only yesterday, with a friend who lives in a city 120 miles away. When we meet up in person, usually just once or twice a year, we often bemoan how infrequently we get to hang out together. Now I’ve finally bullied and coerced him into investing in a VR headset, we can now meet up once or twice a month. While we’ve started out by playing a round of mini-golf, my Unity/C# skills are now good enough for me to create my own multiplayer experiences. I’ve built an environment that looks exactly like a place in the countryside where we often meet up in real life and scattered a variety of bespoke games we like to play throughout this virtual world. Once he buys the lead he needs to connect his Quest 2 to a computer, he’ll be able to use free software called SideQuest to upload my game to his headset and from that point on we’ll no longer be limited to mini-golf.

    Walkabout Mini-Golf – with several calm virtual environments in which to hang with friends.

    I’ve already re-created several of our favourite games like Kubb – a.k.a. Viking Chess – frisbee golf, boules, liar dice and various other board games. And the best bit of all? If he doesn’t like a certain feature, like how far the frisbee flies with a given flick of the wrist for example, I can easily change it to match his preferred aesthetic. If he wants to play a different game that isn’t yet available? I can make it from scratch in just a few short hours.

    While this first project is inspired by a desire to spend more time socialising with friends and family scattered all over the city and the country, so that we can all get the well-defined benefits of feeling more socially connected, I will be spending much of 2022 building various bespoke VR experiences for private clients and businesses. For example, my studio is a stone’s throw from the Bermondsey Mile (a mile-long stretch of railway arches that house over a dozen micro-breweries) and my favourite establishment specialise in honey lager and beers. My first business commission will be to build a VR experience that they can use to attract customers into the establishment during their quieter periods. It will involve catching bees in a butterfly net, taking them to an upstairs laboratory, miniaturising themselves, climbing a ladder to reach a hatch in the top of the bee’s head, which can be used to gain access to the cockpit, from which the bee’s flight can be steered. The aim of the game will be to visit as many flowers as possible to collect nectar and pollen, before returning to the hive.

    In one of my latest VR experiences, you can fly one of these…

    While this commission is a whimsical one, the world of serious gaming is also a strong area of interest. VR has proven to be an incredibly cost-effective way of training staff and has great potential as a means by which to overcome phobias, develop various cognitive capabilities, finesse sporting acumen and even enhance soft skills that are vital to the workplace. More on that to follow in the coming months…

    If you’d like to discuss a project, please do get in touch via Twitter (@drjacklewis) where I tweet about interesting articles on neuroscience and virtual reality breakthroughs that I think you might find interesting, useful and relevant.

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