“Is this the real life? Or is this just fantasy?”
I am levitating in an orange-and-black grid, reminiscent of the 1982 film “Tron.” My eyes widen with awe as a screen appears in front of me. In the next moment, I am floating alone in outer space, drawing my name and other symbols in the atmosphere. My environment suddenly changes and now I’m walking around in snow and attempting to paint a 3-D nose and eyes on a snowman. After that, I’m standing on a wrecked ship at the bottom of the ocean, watching a large blue whale pass me by, staring into my soul. I am unnerved, but oddly calm. Then, I’m transported to a colorful office, where I fulfill various tasks in my cubicle and take orders from my robot bosses. Did this really happen to me? No, but it certainly felt like it did.
This was part of a virtual reality simulation I experienced Tuesday night at the Duderstadt Center located on North Campus. Using the HTC Vive, a bulky headset equipped with two nunchuck-like remotes, I was immersed in a cyber world with crystal-clear resolution that was beyond my own imagination. And yet, it was a world that could easily exist as our own.
Virtual reality possesses the power to control, manipulate and shape our own artificial world, offering a myriad of experiences that may be deemed impossible in real life. Though VR technology has been around for several years now, its advancement and growing accessibility has helped it become integrated into mainstream society. Augmented reality — technology that augments virtual objects in the physical world — has also become somewhat popular, most notably with this past summer’s craze over “Pokemon Go.” Once a rare, immensely expensive commodity, VR technology is available for purchase on our mobile devices and electronic stores, ranging from low-end platforms (the $15 Google Cardboard) to high-end headsets (the $799 HTC Vive and the $599 Oculus Rift). Through motion-detection sensors, users can navigate naturally, manipulate objects and interact with virtual environments. They can watch movies, play video games and even visit exotic locations like the Big House. But while entertainment is an integral part of the VR experience, its technology has become so state-of-the-art that it also benefits health and education.
In September 2015, engineering senior Duncan Abbot and a group of friends started Gwydion, a student-run startup club that specializes in VR and augmented reality technology. At last year’s MHacks, the semi-annual hackathon held at the University of Michigan, the group won the game category. Now, Abbot — the president and CEO of Gwydion — and his peers are continuing to create newer, bigger things. Their most recent achievement was a VR-based tool made for children with physical disabilities at the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. The device was a biometric EMG controller that senses muscle signals and calibrates them wirelessly to a mobile VR app, which simulates a flying game. By controlling the field bar via the controller, the game allows the user to increase muscle movement.
“It provides a disconnect from the real world — not associating pain with something that’s actually happening — and experiencing in-game feedback,” Abbot said. “Those kinds of products that can take people who are limited in their ability to move and go places are the most positive impacts VR can have.”
In addition to the EMG controller, Gwydion is also currently developing a massive, self-conceived VR multiplayer online game. But Abbot noted that Gwydion “started with games, but found that there were ample and unexplored opportunities for non-games in the VR/AR space.”
The group is also working on Crystal Finder, another invention that will hopefully continue to expand VR beyond the realm of recreation. According to Abbot, Crystal Finder is a product that uses augmented reality to analyze crystal structures, as well as architectural and dental models. With help and guidance from the Materials Science and Engineering Department at the University, Abbot is hoping the device will be cheap enough for students to use and that it will be accessible through our phones and Google Cardboard.
“Having the multiple angles on VR is at the core of (Gwydion’s) business model,” Abbot said.
VR has certainly proven to be multifaceted. Along with Abbot, creative minds at the University of Michigan — students and faculty in the School of Art & Design, the College of Engineering and even LSA — are taking the opportunity to explore the limitless possibilities of VR/AR technology in their own way. Dan Fessahazion, director of Digital Media Commons and manager of the Emerging Technologies Group at the Duderstadt Center, plays a pivotal role in guiding students and staff in embarking on ambitious projects with the help of VR/AR technology and the building’s video studios and 3-D labs. Having worked there since about the time of Duderstadt’s opening (almost 20 years ago), Fessahazion firmly believes that VR/AR technology cultivates creativity and innovation.
“The vision of the Duderstadt Center is to be a catalyst for collaboration and multidisciplinary artwork and empower engineers, artists and creators of all kinds to come work with us to deliver something that has never existed before,” Fessahazion said. “Our role is to identify the right tools, technology, software and delivery and then engage them as a team and help them structure their idea.”
By connecting and engaging with the campus community, Fessahazion helps figure out the needs of artists and engineers at the University who are trying to create projects. Working alongside Fessahazion is Travis Tamez, the visualizations systems specialist at the DMC. With a degree in mathematics and statistics from Central Michigan University, Tamez saw the job at the DMC as a way of broadening his horizons in terms of visualization. Similar to Fessahazion, Tamez is inclined to help students and faculty make their projects and ideas become reality. He talks to them about resources like the video studios, 3-D labs and visual consultants, subsequently guiding their visions on how they could fit into virtual and augmented reality. With VR/AR technology, Art & Design students can create multimedia, 360-degree videos and Engineering students can craft 3D-based projects. Due to the demand of content creators and users, VR/AR has become more financially accessible and thus grown immensely in popularity.
“It’s not just games anymore, but visualization and ecotourism and it’s driving the adaption rate,” Fessahazion said.
By working extensively in this specific field, Fessahazion and Tamez both recognize the benefits and the drawbacks of VR/AR technology. While Tamez touched upon the perks of entertainment and travel, he also mentioned health benefits including therapy treatments for PTSD and seeking MRIs in 3-D.
At the same time, however, VR/AR technology comes with downsides, primarily in its detachment and disconnect from actual reality. Abbot noted that with our increased attachment to escapism through our phones and computer, VR/AR technology leads to further displacement from reality. Additionally, Fessahazion says that VR/AR technology “is not a shared experience yet,” in that users can only experience the VR world on their own and not with a virtual community of other VR users.
“It insulates you from being aware of your environment and being aware of the complications VR produces,” Fessahazion said.
The VR environment can have both damaging short-term effects (mostly motion sickness) and long-term effects, such as implanting and inducing false memories during the VR experience.
It’s hard to not recognize the potential dangers that VR and AR could pose for our society in the future. Sci-fi TV shows are large proponents of this paranoia. In particular, the popular British anthology series “Black Mirror” provokes sharp, satirical commentary on the effects of technology, particularly virtual and augmented reality. The most recent season discusses the issues of VR and AR in heavy detail, depicting its likely uses in episodes about modern warfare (“Men Against Fire”), hyper-real video game simulations (“Playtest”) and even in everyday life (“Nosedive”). When Google Glass was released in 2013 as a prototype, it elicited a polarized reaction, with issues concerning security, privacy and safety. Dave Eggers’ dystopian novel “The Circle,” which will be adapted into a film starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks next year, also delves deep into the creeping emergence and perils of augmented reality technology.
“VR is more mature now and AR is a little behind, but AR is going to dominate down the line, has potential to change how we do things,” Fessahazion said.
After getting a taste of the VR and AR systems myself, I realized that most of its benefits often outweigh the costs, despite how disorienting the technology is. I first experienced the AR system using the Microsoft HoloLens, a device that projected life-size holograms of a mime, a zombie, a unicorn head and a hamster wheel onto real objects. I could pause and play the actions of each hologram, simply by motioning my fingers and hands. But when I tried on the HTC Vive headset, I entered another dimension. Everything I witnessed, from the giant blue whale to the snowman, felt eerily real. The possibilities of VR felt endless.
Considering the extremely rapid progress of today’s technology, the likelihood of everyone in the world owning a VR and/or AR system in the near future, whether on our phones or through glasses, is becoming more and more of a reality. The resistance against VR and AR is valid, but given its positive impact on advancing health and education, it seems like that kind of technology is here to stay and that we should embrace it. Visual and music artists have also already taken advantage of VR in their own craft. Taylor Swift and Childish Gambino have created 360-degree music videos for their songs “Blank Space” and “Me and Your Mama,” respectively — apparently, Gambino is selling a virtual reality vinyl of his new funkadelic album Awaken, My Love!, as well, but ideas as to how that would look are currently unknown. Movies like “The Martian,” “School of Rock” and “Star Wars” are available to watch via the Oculus Rift VR headset.
Virtual (and augmented) reality may be scary, but it’s an innovation that is equally exciting and thought-provoking. After my first-ever VR/AR experience, I wondered, “Was that a fantasy?” Nope, I realized soon after. This was real life.
Correction appended: A previous version of this story misstated “ecotourism” as “ecoterrorism.”