Best VR 2016
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Best VR 2016

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Let’s for a moment set aside war, celebrity deaths, terrorism and the impeding political Armageddon, and focus on what was good about 2016: VR.

2016 was a great year for VR, if little else Click To Tweet

This was the year when Virtual Reality became a buzzword and we started talking about “experiences,” and how immersive they all were. But as exciting as these have undoubtedly been, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. The really good stuff is yet to come, but 2016 gave some good hints about what’s in in store.



As the real world becomes an increasingly uncertain and unwelcoming place, perhaps it’s no coincidence that we’re so keen to make virtual worlds work out. Maybe we’re indeed headed for a Ready Player One Oasis-type scenario, but if the range and depth of VR I’ve come across over the past few months is anything to go by, it might not turn out to be such a grim fate after all…

VR let us get that Superman(or woman) feeling by flying around in VR using Google Earth and witness Andy Murray’s Wimbledon Victory from the middle of Centre Court, or the Olympics in Rio. With VR people can already experience different places such as West Hollywood, but the technology can also help you fight phobias, and even reunite an elderly war hero with the community he helped save during World War II.

You can get that Superman(or woman) feeling by flying around in VR using Google Earth Click To Tweet

We’ve also seen some beautiful and powerful examples of how VR is being used in storytelling and I talked to creators about the shaping the language and conventions of this new medium. When leveraged properly, VR has also shown great potential as a tool for tackling difficult issues and engendering empathy. From the BBC project showing the plight of a refugee family fleeing Syria to making us care about the demise of coral reefs.

From virtual books to sports coaching many companies are exploring the potential of VR for education Click To Tweet

From virtual books to sports coaching many companies are exploring the potential of VR for education, as the opportunities for engaging students with content quickly become apparent and tools like Google cardboard made the technology easily accessible to teachers and students around the world.

In April I went to Linden Lab’s Headquarters in San Francisco and discussed the potential of VR for education with their CEO Ebbe Altberg, who explained how their virtual platform Second Life had already been used by Universities and that while the creative SL community did use the legacy platform, they were now investing in a brand new platform to allow users to generate and share their own VR content, Sansar.

We also discussed how the platform would inevitably be used for less “Safe for Work” purposes and how Virtual Reality Porn might help to drive the technology towards mass-market adoption much as it did for the Internet itself. While in the beautiful City by the Bay I also geeked out at their amazing arcade museum and mused about how we can see the evolution of VR from those early machines.

Tools like Google cardboard made VR accessible to teachers and students Click To Tweet

Sansar is not the only player emerging in the social VR space, however. Earlier in the year I saw some interesting developments from Improbable in London and AltspaceVR is pushing ahead with initiatives like allowing punters to watch live events such as comedy shows in VR. One of the challenges of making social interaction in such platforms, work, however, is to create a sense of presence – which requires creating more realistic personalized avatars – and making people comfortable in VR for longer periods of time, which means tackling issues such as simulator sickness.

One challenge of Social VR work is to create a sense of presence, and that means better avatars Click To Tweet

And let’s not forget games of course, VR is a whole lot of fun and although I definitely don’t have as much time as I’d like for playing them, I came across some interesting titles, such as HOVR by independent Lebanese studio Game Cooks, and popular Swedish game SVRVIVE, not to mention my own personal, longstanding obsession: Resident Evil

Even without the expensive headsets, people have been doing amazing things with AR Click To Tweet

When I finally got my hands on the HoloLens for the first time I was rather blown away, and while Magic Leap came under intense fire for allegedly misleading people about its demo videos, causing some to question whether they can deliver on their promise of fully immersive, untethered mixed reality – there were plenty of signs that AR and MR have a bright future indeed.

I was blown away by my HoloLens Demo Click To Tweet

Even without the expensive headsets, people have been doing amazing things with AR such as supporting surgeons in war zones and teaching children digital and creative skills. Many of the interesting projects I came across were from relatively small companies exploring specific niches; One start-up in Russia was crowdfunding development of Mixed Reality lessons to bring subjects like Chemistry and Physics to life, and even the Adult industry got in on the action, producing a low-budget workaround to project live holograms of a much naughtier kind to users around the world using just their mobile phones and a cheap adaptor. And with players like Apple giving out strong signals that they are about to enter this “ARena” (sorry, couldn’t resist) things are bound to get very interesting in 2017.

Watch this space.

 

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Also published on Medium.