For game lovers, 2016 is likely to be remembered as the year when virtual reality technology, having become widely affordable, began to take over.

With the much-anticipated commercial debut of VR headsets, gamers are taking a significant step toward total sensory immersion in the world beyond the screen.

But many people, especially those who have yet to experience VR, are simply wondering what all the fuss is about.

The truth, according to experts, is that VR is likely to fundamentally change how people communicate and create a social impact as big as the telephone or the internet.

In a not-so-distant future, it’s more likely than not that people will interact and view each other as avatars in multiple virtual realities, moving day to day and moment to moment from one world to another.

Some experts go as far as to contend that this virtual transformation will allow people to gain a deeper understanding of one another.

Yet the effect that deep and prolonged immersion in an ersatz reality will have on the human psyche is anybody’s guess. Some caution that users of VR may have difficulty differentiating virtual from real. Others scoff at the notion.

Diving in

The aim of VR is to trick the brain, via giant high-tech goggles, into mistaking the simulacrum for the real.

In effect, a VR headset straps a 360-degree view, a whole world, onto your head. If your head moves, the viewpoint changes accordingly, allowing one to have an immersive experience in a virtual realm.

“The world of the computer was something behind the screen, before,” but now VR gives people a way to enter it, said Masahiko Inami, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology.

“Once people experience quality VR content, there’s no going back,” said Inami, who has been conducting research on integrated human-computer systems.

With the debut of high-end headsets, such as Facebook-owned Oculus’ Oculus Rift, Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC’s Vive and Sony Corp.’s PlayStation VR, people can now enter virtual reality while at home.

Goldman Sachs projected in August that combined sales of VR hardware and software will grow to $95 billion by 2025, compared with $3.2 billion this year.

New ways to converse

Some experts claim this new, immersive experience may give birth to new forms of communication.

At an Oculus VR event in October, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated a way people might use to communicate in the future.

Wearing a headset, Zuckerberg and his colleagues turned themselves into on-screen avatars and chatted while switching virtual backgrounds from Facebook’s offices to Zuckerberg’s home and then to somewhere under the sea.

The anime-like avatars could change facial expressions, make gestures and even play cards.

With Facebook’s $2 billion purchase of Oculus, such activities may one day be among the Facebook functions enjoyed by its 1.8 billion users.

“The spread of VR will probably depend on how communication functions will be incorporated into the technology,” said Kiyoshi Shin, a journalist who watches the VR industry closely.

“Think about smartphones. We obsessively check them because there are (apps like) Facebook Messenger and Line. Communication is the factor for it to penetrate into people’s everyday life,” he said.

Inami of the University of Tokyo takes it a step further, saying VR will allow one to walk in other people’s shoes.

“Talking to people face to face has been an important method of communication to understand others . . . but it will be possible to deepen understanding of others by sharing what they are seeing,” which is similar to transforming into them, Inami said, referring to an overseas study on the potential of VR to reduce racial bias.

In 2014, researchers from London and Barcelona studied how virtual body-swapping to a different ethnicity affects attitude. Among white test subjects who virtually acquired black bodies, their unconscious biases against black people diminished, the study showed.

By experiencing a different body, people could gain a better understanding of others, he said.

Masahiko Inami
Masahiko Inami

Uncharted waters

But Inami also said he has concerns, namely that VR may have unintended, unforeseen and decidedly negative effects, just as public exploitation of the internet did.

As VR spreads, more people will spend an increasing amount of time online, using multiple avatars to explore multiple digital worlds.

For those perhaps struggling in life, the call of a virtual world could prove more enticing than reality itself, with potentially risky psychological results.

“There must be some kind of effect on people’s minds. Some people might get confused by their virtual transformation,” Inami said.

Journalist Shin is more optimistic about the health risks of using VR.

“Actually, I’m not really worried about it. The virtual and real worlds have already been mixed, to a certain degree,” Shin said.

For instance, some people compulsively stare at their smartphones everywhere they go, playing games or watching virtual content, while others appear to be glued to their TVs at home all the time. It’s the difference between watching it on the screen or being in it, he said.

“I can’t imagine that people won’t be able to differentiate what is real and what is virtual,” he said.

Inami suggests, however, that the government start looking into the potential risks by creating a special virtual zone where a fixed number of people can spend time together and see what happens.

“Some people will do something bad and we could learn from it. Otherwise, we can’t predict what’s going to happen,” he said, adding that cults could use the technology to brainwash new subjects.

The second coming?

Many have dubbed 2016 as the dawn of the VR era. But experts say the technology has been around for decades and this is actually the second VR bubble since the 1990s.

But because the devices cost millions of yen back then, only engineers and researchers at big companies had the chance to use them, Inami said.

“The new VR fad will face some ups and downs from now on, but it’s hard to imagine it will go back to scratch,” Inami said, because, unlike the ’90s, the devices are much cheaper and it is easier to make 3-D content.

State-of-the-art VR headsets cost around ¥50,000 to ¥100,000, which is lower than many personal computers. The drastic price reduction is linked to the smartphone wave, Inami said.

The two devices share key parts — such as head-tracking sensors — and the quick spread of smartphones forced parts makers to mass produce them, bringing down the costs.

Smartphones themselves can be turned into VR devices by simply sticking them into a simple, less expensive headset. Although the sense of immersiveness is not as strong, they allow people to experiment with VR in a more casual manner.

Google apparently sees potential in mobile VR. It just launched a headset called the Daydream and a VR-ready smartphone called the Pixel.

On the software front, creating 3-D video games has become easier thanks to so-called video game engines, according to Shin.

“During the 1990s boom, it was still really difficult to make 3-D graphics. That’s why there wasn’t much content,” Shin said.

But such video game engines as Unity and Unreal, which are development kits that allow engineers to make games for multiple platforms, have lowered the hurdles for creating elaborate games in recent years, and this know-how can be applied to VR games as well, he said.

Just the beginning

VR may still be at its dawn, but some of the industry’s key players said the technology is improving — rapidly.

“There’s so much innovation happening around hardware,” Joel Breton, vice president of VR content for HTC Vive, said last week at the Japan VR Summit in Tokyo.

For instance, HTC is working on getting rid of the data-transmission cables considered essential to high-end headsets, he said. It is also looking at developing a full-body tracking function to improve the immersive experience, instead of just sticking with heads and hands.

“If I look out to 2020, I feel very confident that we’ll have some good solutions,” he said.

Other industries, from design and cinema to health care and education, are likely to adopt VR technologies in the future.

Young directors will “be thinking how to tell stories, go beyond stories, create interactive stories somewhere between stories and games” using VR, said Noah Falstein, chief game designer at Google.

“I can’t wait to see that.”

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