Virtual reality News – software that brings tangible benefits – and dangers?

05 May 2016

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Virtual reality image from WikipediaTechnology has brought us many benefits, not least the ability to – partially - shut ourselves out from our surroundings. The Walkman, then the iPod revolutionised travel, whether for a teenager doing a paper-round or a businesswoman losing herself in Pink Floyd on the morning commuter train.  Then came iPhones, iPads and all the other tablets, phablets and phones where, as well as listening to music, video could be watched in semi-privacy, courtesy of the latest Bluetooth, noise-cancelling headphones as you settle into your Club-Class seat en route to New York. However, amazing as the various pods and pads are, they don’t quite let us entirely separate ourselves from our surroundings, even if you go the whole hog on your flight and put on those naff-looking eyeshades.

Fast backwards a year, and a friend of mine was at the (rather splendid) Future Talent conference at the Royal Opera House in London. On the way in he was assailed by a nice lady from Carve Consulting, whom he knew, and asked if he’d like to put on a set of virtual reality goggles.  Now this chap has a physique that can best be described as ‘like one of Bambi’s legs split in two’, and when he slipped on the headset he discovered that he was now on a towering roller-coaster, requiring a degree of willowy flexing at the knees as he strove to keep his balance and, more importantly, not fall out of the roller-coaster car.  As he swooped and swerved, bystanders ran for cover.  A lot of people had apparently found themselves going weak at the knees, dizzy and falling over after this experience, but my friend was made of stronger stuff.  However, he did confide in me that the whole experience, whilst marvellous fun, was a bit weird. 

The software involved in these things nowadays is certainly stunning, creating an experience that can involve every one of our senses – sight, touch, hearing and even smell.  This last, providing it is a pleasant odour, could be a distinct advantage on a long journey, especially if you are strapped in next to a flatulent fellow-traveller, but, conversely, if you are really getting into your virtual world then, like my roller-coaster riding friend, you will need to be careful what you are doing with your limbs. Children, especially, could become a real menace on a long-haul flight!

Although it’s been around for some time, virtual reality has become much more mainstream in the last year, with Facebook acquiring Oculus VR and with virtual reality goggles, or helmets as they are often called, becoming available for as little as £15 or less.  Yet I haven’t seen too many people on a plane with one of these devices strapped to their head in an attempt to remove actual reality and replace it with an alternative, virtual one. However, in the same way that we now take it for granted that our neighbours on planes, trains and automobiles will be plugged into some entertaining device, I am sure that it will become much more commonplace to see virtual reality headsets in many more public places in the future.

Finally, sadly, there is at least one instance I am aware of where someone has been killed whilst walking over a railway crossing with their headphones in and they didn’t hear the noise of the approaching train.  While not the fault of the technology, it illustrates the potential dangers when you mix technology with human stupidity in a public place and the potential for disaster with virtual reality seems even more pronounced. That’s not enough reason to ban them and I think that the reality (sorry!) is that they are more likely to cause embarrassment than actual physical pain.   And, they are, of course, as my friend said, marvellous fun!

Michael Phair, Be-IT Resourcing    

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