When we first started to get used to virtual reality in 2016, it was mostly from the perspective of video gaming. This is the avenue the technology used to gain public attention (and likely the bulk of its funding), and so, in the early going, this is where most of the attention was focused. We started off valuing the most active VR experiences – the ones we could play along with in a realistic fashion. It has since become clear though that some of the more interesting applications for virtual reality may actually be those that revolve more around viewing and exploration than nonstop activity. Already, VR has made strides in or hinted at making strides in some of the following areas:
- Tourism – VR can transport us easily to other places around the world, and it’s already beginning to do so in various ways. In some cases it essentially turns Google Maps and/or Google Earth into an interactive first-person experience. In others, it allows us to walk through museums or other important landmarks. These experiences exemplify the concept that was outlined above – that VR doesn’t need action to be effective through light exploration and first-person viewing.
- Sports Viewing & Betting – VR is also making strides in sports viewing in that it has the power to allow any individual to, in theory, sit in any seat in any stadium or arena. This is significant not just for raw entertainment but also because of its potential to open VR channels of the burgeoning betting business. Sports betting can cover a lot of events in a lot of different ways, and allowing people to bet on events they feel like they’re seeing in person makes for a wholly more “real” experience than simply betting on a computer screen.
- Cinema – We’ve seen a few examples of VR dabbling in cinema to this point, though nothing has quite mastered it. It does seems quite clear that VR is not going to replace traditional cinematic experience. However, it can certainly offer alternative viewing options, such as when a fairly early VR program allowed players to take up the persona of a lone Red Planet explorer in a simulation based on The Martian.
What these kinds of experiences have in common is that, as mentioned above, they’re more about viewing and exploration than interaction – for the most part. We’ve learned that VR can take us on a journey every bit as easily as it can expose us to any gaming scenario. And it’s beginning to appear as if some developers may use this idea to take people on the ultimate journey: to explore the cosmos.
Already in December of last year we saw a grouping of VR space travel experiences that are collectively extraordinary. One involves flying through Earth’s stratosphere in a fighter jet; one takes you through a simulation of a balloon launch in high altitude; others simply send you drifting through space; and others, yes, are a little less serious, such as Minecraft: SPACE COASTER, a program building on the very popular video game of Minecraft. Generally though it became clear that we were starting to see a category growing of VR apps built around high-altitude and outer space exploration.
More recently we saw what essentially serves as a more advanced version of this style of program in the form of Overview. Released on the HTC Vive and designed to let users explore the cosmos, it actually lets you look at the precise locations of planets, moons and stars in our own solar system. It’s an extraordinary concept and one that’s only going to be executed better moving forward.
What kind of effect apps like these may ultimately have remains to be seen. But it’s not at all a stretch to wonder if they might spark more interest in space, space travel, and science in general. There are concepts here that are inaccessible to a lot of people. VR, however, can make them accessible, in the same way it can give you the experience of sitting courtside at a basketball game, or help you to tour a museum across the world.