Why the killer app of virtual reality right now is just sitting in a room, looking at things.
In 1793, an Irish painter and impresario named Robert Barker opened a custom-designed six-story entertainment complex near London’s Leicester Square, inviting amazed spectators to stand on a platform surrounded by a vast, circular painting—more than a thousand square feet in size—depicting a view of the city from the roof of a flour mill south of Blackfriars Bridge. There was no narrative involved in the experience—just the wonder of standing in a virtual space that created the illusion of being somewhere else. Drawing on the Greek phrase for “all-encompassing view,” Barker called it The Panorama.
I’ve been thinking about the Panorama lately, because during my brief COVID quarantine last week, I spent some time playing around with one of the descendants of Barker’s palace of illusion: the latest Occulus VR headset, the Quest2. (In its continuing bid to rebrand everything around the metaverse, Occulus’s parent company, Meta—formerly known as Facebook—has apparently just dropped the Occulus brand altogether. It’s now called Meta Quest, which sounds to my ears more like a description of Don Quixote.) But whatever the new branding is, the device itself is a lot of fun: the screen resolution and the head tracking are now precise and responsive enough that you really do feel like you’re in an immersive space, which for me at least seems to have solved the nausea problem. The headset is still way too heavy on your face, but that will inevitably improve over time. As I wrote last month, I’m still not a believer that the “metaverse” is the next big paradigm shift in user interfaces generally. But there’s no question VR/AR is going to be a significant part of the entertainment world from here on out.
I tried a number of apps during my quarantine, including the delightful Walkabout Mini Golf, which my old friend Dennis Crowley recommended on Twitter. (VR has convincingly passed the mini-golf Turing Test: playing it on the Quest2 was functionally indistinguishable from playing it in real life, only the courses were far more imaginative in their designs than most real-world versions.) But the experience that really stuck with me was playing—if playing is the right word—a game called The Room VR: A Dark Matter, a new title from Fireproof Games.
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