On Thanksgiving, families tried to ignore the elephant in the parlor: the presidential election. Thousands of how-to listicles were published about how a clash between loved ones’ political beliefs could be avoided. None mentioned virtual reality (VR), though they should have because it is a powerful and distracting form of entertainment.
I brought the Google Pixel and Daydream View headset to Thanksgiving dinner. When the conversation was at the crossroads between boring and political, I changed the subject to VR amidst non-tech family members and friends who may have heard about VR but have never tried it. They were a perfect group to test how ordinary people would respond to VR.
Orienting ordinary people to VR
Google’s 360-degree Street View helped new VR users let go and immersed them in the experience. Each person was asked for a meaningful street address. After setting the headset to the location using the virtual keyboard, I helped them put on the headset, set the strap to be comfortable and handed him or her the controller without any introduction. Street View uses just one button to navigate. In less than a minute, VR neophytes from millennial age to septuagenarian were immersed in looking at a relevant Street View scene from their past and navigating up and down the surrounding neighborhood.
Street View with three degrees of freedom (3DoF) does not compare to a six degree of freedom (6DoF) Vive experience that tracks the user’s movement in reality to the VR space. Street View did not need an explanation. Just point the controller that looks like a fishing line cast ahead of you onto the white dot, and press the button to transport to the next Street View position. VR neophytes may have felt awkward and uncomfortable acclimating to a 6DoF VR experience using a Vive because of sensory overload and lack of familiarity with the virtual space. Street View motivated them to explore the emotional connection to the address and forget about the newness of VR.
Those waiting their turn were relieved of the tension of wanting to turn the conversation to politics. In anticipation, they steered an enthusiastic conversation to VR-themed movies, such as the Matrix Trilogy, and then to movies with artificially intelligent characters, such as Ex Machina and Short Circuit.
Motivated and oriented, I explained how to get to the Daydream welcome app that explains how the controller is used to navigate in VR and through system and app menus. The Apple users needed a nudge with the explanation that the app button was like the secondary menu button and PC users that it was like the right click mouse button. After five minutes of getting used to the controller, even the septuagenarians were ready to explore more VR.
Two app suggestions that were self-explanatory of the capabilities of VR were a robot game called Mekorama and YouTube's 360 degree video. Mekorama, a game in which the player must move a robot through an architectural structure and around obstacles to win, teaches interaction with a virtual environment and 360 degrees video. With a little nudging, they learned they were viewing a 3D space and could turn in any direction and observe the entire scene from any point in 360 degrees, not just what was in front of them like with a TV or the theatre.
The millennial-aged and younger people quickly understood how to interact with the VR. And after a minute and a half into the welcome tutorial, they found all the apps and figured how to download more from the Play Store. Almost everyone took a turn experiencing VR. Street View made the experience approachable and dissolved any fear of confusion that ordinary computer and mobile users have towards new technologies. The thoughtful design of the controller and the welcome app explained interaction with the 3D virtual world. The performance of the Pixel kept the frame rate high and latency low, so no one complained that they felt seasick, which is one of the problems of prolonged VR use with Google Cardboard on a slower smartphone.
VR is consumer-ready and no longer an exclusive experience for serious gamers with disposable income seeking the next big thrilling experience. Right now, mobile VR is much less expensive than console VR such as the Vive and Oculus Rift, but the consumer still has to buy an expensive high-performance Daydream-ready smartphone that costs about $700.
During the next year or two, though, Daydream-ready phone prices will drop and most mid-priced phones will be powerful enough to produce good VR experiences. At the same time, most consumers will get an introduction to VR like family and friends did this Thanksgiving. When this occurs, VR will enter the mainstream and become a consumer expectation.