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Is reality really virtual?

Ola Björling.
Ola Björling.

Ola Björling, Global Head of VR, MediaMonks, looks at what is really real about virtual reality.

Of VR's many strengths, its capacity for conveying a sense of intimacy stands out as one of the more profound. When an actor breaks the fourth wall, looking at the camera on TV, you raise your eyebrows in surprise, but when a person looks into your eyes in VR the impact is orders of magnitude more powerful.

Computer graphic representations of humans offer an incredible array of extremely complex problems. There are annual improvements in the rendering of skin, eyes, the physics of movement and so on. …  But we are nowhere near a stage where VR humans can reliably and continuously fool us.

The time will come when we'll start to make it out of the uncanny valley in some special cases, but if you want to put a VR user face-to-face with a truly believable human, nothing feels as real as the real thing.

Live-action 360° film has led a lot of the VR content so far for several reasons. One is this sense of being in a real place and seeing real humans, and another is that the only headsets available to consumers until recently — GearVR and Google Cardboard — are very limited in what real-time graphics they can handle. But all can play video. This content has allowed thousands of people to experience emotions and reactions that no other medium managed to elicit before, seeing people removing headsets with tears in their eyes and a very deep sense of having truly been somewhere else.

It's peculiar, then, that some people insist on claiming that this is not real VR, that it's merely 360° film. Sure, there is no positional head tracking using the current technology — regular video files and mobile headsets — but if we list the things missing from absolute realism, game engines don't necessarily fare any better. Among the other things missing are haptics, smell, taste, resolution that we can't tell from the real world. … The list goes on. By this reasoning, nothing existing today should be called "real VR."

Another argument is that VR film is linear and non-interactive. This isn't necessarily an inherent trait of 360-film as there are already examples of clever interactivity with more to come. But it's also worth noting that no VR game — or life itself for that matter — always affords you agency or choice. So does a VR game cease to be VR when a scripted event unfolds? The argument crumbles.

We're already seeing successful implementations of volumetric film and cross-media use of filmed plates in real time environments. Are these also disqualified from being called VR because the film snippet plays in a linear fashion within an interactive environment? It's an untenable position and the march of technological evolution will plough over every new line in the sand drawn by the naysayers.

Our ability to capture a real moment for playback in VR gets better every day; it will continue to improve. The vernacular we use to differentiate this from game engines will change over time but claiming that it isn't VR is and will remain a misunderstanding of the medium.

The Virtual Reality Report

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