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The Rise of Consumer Virtual Reality

Apr 14, 2016 9:00:00 AM

The Rise of Consumer Virtual Reality

2016 is a landmark year for gaming. There’s the usual array of big titles being released, including a few long awaited sequels, as well as some interesting new IPs. But this year it’s not about the games, it’s about the hardware. 

After decades of missteps (I’m looking at you, Virtual Boy) and empty promises, we’re finally seeing the first fully realized virtual reality systems being released for consumer use.  While I haven’t been able to try them all myself (I’m pushing for a bigger R&D budget, though!), I’ve looked over the specs and there’s a lot to be excited about.  There are also some pitfalls we would do well to examine.

There are five main contenders for your virtual reality dollar, and we’ll take a look at each in turn.

Google Cardboard

Easily the cheapest of the VR contenders, Google Cardboard was also the first to actually be available on the market.  For the low price of $25 (or $30 for a pair), you can have your own cardboard headset. 

Cardboard works by placing your phone in a literal piece of cardboard with a pair of reverse fisheye lenses in it.  Using compatible applications, you can view videos, maps and play games in full virtual reality.  It’s not built for long periods of use, doesn’t have a ton of apps, and feels just a tiny bit like the Viewmasters of old, but for the price you really can’t go wrong with giving it a try. 

If you’ve already got an Android or iOS phone, it’s worth it just for the novelty value, if nothing else. (For a laugh, check out Google’s spoof on the VR hype.)

Oculus Rift

Following their phenomenally successful Kickstarter campaign, Oculus spent years perfecting their design.  After a high profile purchase by Facebook (and the resulting infusion of cash), they’ve produced a remarkably robust product, the Oculus Rift. 

The $599 price point is a little steep, and the system requirements to power a Rift are, quite honestly, brutal.  Most home users won’t have the system to run this one, but the early reviews (it began delivery on 3/28/2016) are that it’s absolutely worthwhile if you have the rig to run it. 

HTC Vive

The Vive is the only system that comes with headset position tracking, meaning that you’ll be able to walk around your room (assuming you have one large enough to dedicate to VR play) and have the system respond.  There’s not a lot of word on whether we’ll see applications that support that feature, but HTC’s partnership with Steam bodes well for future support. 

At $799, though, the Vive is the most expensive of the gaming solutions.  It doesn’t ship until May, and there’s no word on their website about system requirements.

Playstation VR

Sony’s entry into the VR fray is, not surprisingly, tied to its PlayStation 4 platform.  Set for release in October, the PlayStation VR is already turning heads with its $399 pricing and standardized hardware. 

We’ll see what sorts of third party software support happens, but Sony is pushing the device hard and we can expect solid first party support from them. 

Microsoft HoloLens

Microsoft has chosen to skip the initial round of the VR wars and instead to focus on delivering an augmented reality solution. 

While it’s early in development as compared to the other solutions appearing this year, HoloLens is loaded with potential.  Rather than replacing what the user sees, HoloLens operates by overlaying data on top of everyday reality.  So a blank wall becomes a video feed, or a plumbing job gets a virtual reality “how-to” overlay. 

It’s a fascinating concept, but one with a ways to go.  Early reports are that the field of view on the demo models is very narrow and the early developer editions are priced beyond reasonable testing at $30,000. 

There’s no word on the pricing or timing of a consumer model at present.

Why Should We Care?

There’s a couple of pieces here that have effects on ministry. 

First, the reality (pun unfortunately unintended) is that while the initial adoption of VR will be limited, the costs and equipment barriers will fall with time, leaving us in a world of ubiquitous VR.  While it will undoubtedly transform entertainment, it will also open new doorways to education.  Can you imagine being able to take your confirmation class (youth or adult) on a tour of some of the physical locations in the Biblical narratives?  It’ll never be the same as being there (it is virtual reality, after all…), but it could augment learning incredibly. 

It will also be adapted for communication and interaction, taking Skype and other web conferencing experiences to a new level.  These things aren’t necessarily transformational change, but they’re incremental steps worth being aware of.  (Super cool points go to the first congregation to stream worship in 360 3D video…)

More troubling and less certain, though, is the impact that virtual reality will have on the ways we think and interact overall.  We’re already seeing early results that media multitasking (such as what teens often do with multiple screens) is correlated with increased depression and social anxiety. 

We don’t yet know what social and emotional changes will come with VR’s potential to escape from reality in total.  There are several companies producing VR experiences for the pornography industry already, further opening the door to damage marriages and undermine premarital relationships. 

Now is the time to teach our congregations the proper perspectives on fantasy vs. reality.  There’s nothing wrong or sinful about indulging in appropriate fantasy, whether that’s through books, movies, pretending or even virtual reality.  But it must be properly understood to be fantasy and not mistaken for reality. 

By continuing to ground our congregations in the reality of God’s creation and the accompanying reality of their lives, we can help them to adapt to the coming changes in healthy, appropriate ways.  We do this best by continuing to remind them of the ongoing importance of Word and Sacrament, and the real reality that is gathering in community each week to hear and taste our Lord’s gifts to us. 

There’s value in all types ofl human connection, but our members need to be reminded that there’s something viscerally important about being present in the flesh together.  We were created to live in real community.  Let’s teach our people, particularly our young people, the importance of that now, so that they can approach this new technology in appropriate, healthy ways.


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Rev. Bill Johnson

Written by Rev. Bill Johnson

Rev. Bill Johnson serves as the Director of Educational Technology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne. He’s passionate about finding effective ways to share the Gospel with emerging generations and new ways to use technology to form the next generation of servants for the Church. He lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with his wife and three teenage daughters. Please pray for him.

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