This is an article from the fall 2017 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
You are standing in front of the sun. From this distance, its roiling plasma seems close enough to touch. Beads of sweat form on your brow —you’re convinced you can feel its searing heat. Look down and see that you’re floating among thousands of twinkling lights — the stars, dust, and matter that make up the universe, swirling and stretching farther than the eye can see. Turn your head and you spy a tiny blue orb, its humble appearance belying the life teeming on and within it. The orb is Earth. Which is where you are, too, when you pull off your headset and return to reality. But what is reality anymore?
In the past few years, the market has exploded with devices intended to modify, enhance, or even replace our reality — temporarily, anyway. From Google Glass to the Oculus Rift to the HTC Vive, this technology has transformed from a futuristic novelty to a set of sophisticated systems that can be purchased for a (relatively) modest price at your average electronics retailer.
Although people have long dreamed of machines that could alter our perceptions, virtual reality had its true genesis in the mid-20th century. There was the Sensorama, an arcade-style booth that encircled the seated user’s head, pairing a 3-D film with additional sensory experiences such as smell and motion. (The Sensorama never took off.)
Then, in the late ’80s, video game juggernaut Nintendo tried out the Power Glove, which further pushed the boundaries of interactivity. But once again developers found themselves stymied by unrealistic graphics and a technology that wasn’t quite ready for prime time.
Fast forward to today, when lightning-fast internet and near-photorealistic graphic capabilities have combined to make virtual and augmented reality a major topic of conversation once again. New VR devices —which sit atop the user’s head, blocking out all visual input from the real world and replacing it with either 360-degree video or a computer-simulated world — arrive seasonally.
A complementary technology called “augmented reality,” or AR, has been gaining steam, too. With AR devices such as Google Glass and Microsoft HoloLens, a user’s real surroundings are visible, but the devices map walls and flat surfaces, placing dynamic items within the viewer’s frame of reference. Interest in VR, AR, and related technology has spread to companies like Facebook and the New York Times, which are both experimenting with how to integrate interactive 360-degree videos into their services.
But now that the technology is more widely available, questions loom. Can VR and AR help make us happier, better people? Can they teach us something about ourselves, about the world? Can they engage us in more deeply intimate ways? And would that be a good thing? And who decides?
Welcome to the reality revolution.
We Are Who VR
Today more than ever, our ambivalence toward technology grows in direct proportion to our familiarity with it. But Stanford University Professor Jeremy Bailenson (A.B. 1994) is optimistic about the staying power of VR. He sees virtual reality’s potential to improve our skills, careers, and even mindsets.
At the cutting-edge Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Bailenson is working on everything from how virtual reality could help combat racial bias to fostering cooperation between people to encouraging eco-friendly choices. He has already shown that certain virtual experiences can help change people’s minds and behaviors, sometimes long after the fact.
In one experiment, Bailenson’s lab asked participants to pop on a headset, which transported them to a large empty city where they flew through the air and dipped between skyscrapers. They were then alerted that there was a child in danger somewhere in the city. To win the game, the participants had to search the city and find him, administering a dose of medicine in the nick of time and saving his life.
Some people got so into the simulation that they tried to leap into the air or jump backward, even though they weren’t really flying over the rooftops of a city. But the most interesting effects occurred once the headsets were off. After the experiment, the lab technician led each participant back to a debrief room, where she would “accidentally” drop the pens and pencils she was carrying. Almost without fail, those who had just finished the game rushed to help. In fact, they were much more likely to come to the assistant’s help when compared to those whose VR experience had them riding passively in a helicopter instead of actively flying around and saving the child. Had the experience of rescuing a person virtually primed them to do good deeds?
Bailenson thinks so. His lab is also tinkering with how to use VR to reduce racial bias, even one that we might not know we have. In another experiment, participants put on a VR device and look into a virtual mirror, where they’ve been transformed into someone unlike themselves. A white man, for example, might become a black woman, seeing the world through her eyes.
“Typical diversity training uses role playing or the reading of case studies,” Bailenson says. “But when you literally become someone else and walk a mile in their shoes, motivation and engagement are amplified.”
Ultimately, he says, “VR is about producing ‘aha’ moments. When a person changes race or gender in the virtual mirror, and then experiences prejudice firsthand while wearing a different body, their reaction is often intense.”
And the effects aren’t merely temporary: Bailenson’s research has shown that experiment participants displayed increased empathy not only immediately following their VR experience but even two, four, and eight weeks afterward. “In general,” he says, “our research shows that the effects of VR tend to last longer than those produced by watching a video or by role playing.” A new book about his work, Experience on Demand, will be released in early 2018.
In addition to his work in the lab, Bailenson’s belief in the power of VR led him to create his own company, STRIVR, which connects VR technology with corporations and sports teams. Cofounded with Derek Belch, a former assistant football coach at Stanford, STRIVR helps train athletes, introducing them to new plays and practice drills while minimizing the chance of injury. It also works with big-name companies like Walmart, which uses the technology to expose new employees to problems they might encounter on the job, allowing them to learn in a safe environment before they ever set foot on the shop floor.
The ABCs of VR
Imagine being able to analyze any fossil or artifact you want, whenever you want. To be able to turn it around, look inside, and even see how it was found in the real world from the comfort of your own lab — or even your own home. Picture yourself learning about conservation methods by shadowing park rangers in China as they try to rescue giant pandas from extinction. All these experiences are possible with VR, opening doors to personalize the educational experience like never before.
Some LSA departments are getting in early by partnering with LSA Information Technology to experiment with novel ways to use VR for displays, research, and more. They’re working to develop the Microsoft HoloLens for use with the 3-D images of fossils created by the U-M Museum of Paleontology for its Online Repository of Fossils. Their work will allow anyone, anywhere to spin, enlarge, zoom in, and get up close to fossils without any risk of damage. The researchers are even working on ways to display the fossils as they looked when they were discovered on site, which can tell paleontologists even more about the animals and how they ended up there. Additionally, the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology has developed a VR program to give visitors to last year’s Oplontis exhibition a hyperrealistic, firsthand view of what an ancient Roman villa would have felt like from the point of view of a villa’s owner and slaves.
Others, such as LSA alumni Derek Koenig (A.B. 1989) and Matt Katzive (A.B. 1991) of Discovery VR, are working to blend education with entertainment to create uniquely enriching and powerful learning experiences. Their company, which is part of Discovery Communications, the company that owns the Discovery Channel, has created hundreds of immersive films.
“With VR, we have the ability to inspire true empathy,” says Koenig. “We can transport people to another place in the world, emotionally to another situation, or even through time. That’s the beauty of it.”
The team has captured everything from the quiet grandeur of a California redwood forest to an irreverent dog’s-eye view of Animal Planet’s annual Puppy Bowl. In Nepal, their team joined locals and the World Wildlife Fund as they rode on elephants to capture and relocate endangered rhinos. They even equipped Olympic skier Bode Miller with a head-mounted camera to film a thrilling downhill run.
“VR has the potential to really reshape your perspective,” says Katzive, “whether that is through storytelling or education or pure entertainment.”
Katzive also believes that as humans interact more with technology, that technology will change in response to us and not the other way around. He also says that while many early VR experiences are solitary, the situation could change with time.
“I have a feeling technology tends to evolve along the lines of human needs. And the human need for social interaction will never go away,” he says.
A New Cinéma Vérité
A perhaps apocryphal story describes the first time audiences saw the Lumiére brothers’ 1895 short film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. Some viewers, unfamiliar with cinema, were so gripped with panic at the image of a train barreling toward them that they fled the theater. Obviously, audiences have since acclimated to movie screens, but virtual reality holds the potential to dazzle us again as a thoroughly immersive entertainment experience. Pop on a headset and suddenly you’re exploring a sunken ship as a massive orca glides by, or sit in the cockpit of a spacecraft firing at enemy planes. Whether the experience is interactive, as with a game or a film, virtual reality has the ability to undermine our connection to the real world, promoting the user from passive observer to vital participant in an immersive virtual world.
Carissa Flocken (A.B. ’14) and Ben Doyle (B.S. ’15) recognized early the possibilities afforded by VR, picking up and moving to Hollywood after graduation in the hopes of making their own immersive films. Instead, they realized that although millennials were craving — even expecting — new methods of storytelling, not everyone was buying the headsets needed to view the films. So they set out to solve that problem.
“Our idea was to build a browser-based 360 video player that anyone could use on their phones — no app download needed,” says Flocken. “We’d be the ‘entry point’ to VR.”
Now Flocken and Doyle’s company, Entrypoint VR, helps big media producers and independent artists alike create and share 360 videos — tapping into a market that Goldman Sachs predicts will surpass television in revenues in the next ten years.
“The history of media has proven that people are always hungry for new ways to experience, to share, to see,” says Flocken. “Any new medium that can expand their arsenal of tools to do that will be adopted by masses of people. We think that people are only going to increase their expectations for interactive, responsive content that they can customize and share.”