Averi Israel

Growing up, my family and I frequented Disney World during the summers.  While I loved many attractions there, my favorite was Disney Quest, a five story interactive theme park full of video games and ‘virtual worlds.’  When Disney Quest first opened in the late ‘90s, it was state-of-the-art; you could design your own roller coaster and ride it in a motion simulator, fly on Aladdin’s magic carpet with the help of an HMD (head mounted display), and raft down a projection of a jungle river.  Today, however, the magic of Disney Quest has faded as technology has advanced.  One park visitor declared to the Orlando Sentinel, ‘I have more power in my phone than in that whole building.’  The virtual reality thrills of Disney Quest are now available from the comfort of our own homes, and consequently, Disney announced plans to retire the aged attraction this year.


Purchase Samsung Gear VR - Virtual Reality Headset here!

Mainstream VR: Oculus and Facebook

While artists have been experimenting with virtual reality since the 1930s, the dawn of personal virtual reality systems began roughly in 2012, when 17 year old Palmer Luckey launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund his PC operated VR headset, the Oculus Rift.  The project was funded in less than 24 hours and caught the eye of tech giant Mark Zuckerberg.  Just four years after the Kickstarter campaign, Facebook bought Oculus from Luckey for a hearty $2 billion.

At the April 2016 F8 developer conference, the Facebook team reported that the acquisition of Oculus was part of their ten year plan to further connect individuals using technology.  The PC gaming community – one of the first to embrace the world of VR – met the announcement with skepticism, afraid that Oculus, once focused on progressive gaming, was selling out as a plaything for tech tycoons.

However,  Luckey  claims to remain committed to the enhancement of his technology.  During a recent press event, he explained that the Rift will only be Mac compatible ‘if [Apple] ever releases a good computer,’ meaning that even a $6,000 Mac, outfitted with top upgrades, still doesn’t reach the recommended specifications for the Rift, and Luckey isn’t willing to compromise on quality.

It’s been a rough year for Apple.  In January, Apple stock fell into the negatives for the first time since 2008, and in late April, billionaire capitalist Carl Icahn exited all his Apple stock (a 1% claim, or two-billion dollars worth), fearing the US’s precarious relationship with China too risky for investments.  Yet, when it comes to VR, China appears to be leading the pack.  Already, developers there are creating sleek, glasses-like HMDs, and designers are working within a consumer accessible price point.

Purchasing VR

Currently, the Oculus Rift package (headset, sensor, remote, cables, Xbox controller, and Crash Bandicoot/Sonic-like game Lucky’s Tale) sells for $599, and due to frenzied demand does not ship until early August.  Amazon and Best Buy are slated to stock the Rift, but even with that convenience, price is still a deterrent for many buyers.

Fortunately for Samsung smartphone owners, the Korea-based technology titan collaborated with Oculus to construct Gear VR, a HMD powered by the Samsung Galaxy.  Headsets sell for just $99, a fraction of the cost of the Rift.  Additionally, Samsung’s Milk VR app allows customers to easily access an expansive library of VR content, making the user experience simple enough for anyone to try.  (If you’re in New York, check out Samsung 837, the ‘experimental playground,’ to see for yourself.)

Despite their seeming monopoly, Oculus does have competitors.  Sony’s PS4 ‘Project Morpheus’ ($399), possibly the most aesthetically pleasing of the VR headsets, is set to hit shelves in October 2016.  Having debuted in 2014, Google’s Cardboard, like Gear VR, is a smartphone (including iPhone) HMD with a price between $14-$120 (or free if you build it yourself).  Arguably the greatest competitor of the Oculus Rift is the HTC Vive.  Unveiled in 2015, the Vive package is $800, and, despite the price, is favored by the video game world thanks to its operation on the platform Steam, a preferable community for gamers.

Not a Gamer? VR Still Matters

While the advent of personal VR is rooted in gaming, its future reaches more diverse territories.  Applications include real estate viewing without having to travel, virtual dressing rooms eliminating the need to shop in-store, and concerts sans crowds, but perhaps the most exciting aspect of VR is how it changes the way we tell stories cinematically.

VR devices can be used to watch standard content, like that on Netflix and Hulu, in a way that completely blocks out the outside world.  However, in addition to this use, and perhaps much more interesting, is the way the technology has inspired the creation of 360° immersive film.  In January, Samsung announced their plans to open a VR film studio in New York City to begin making such content; yet, across the country, small teams are already conceiving projects of their own*.

In April, I spent two weeks working the Tribeca Film Festival, where one of the festival highlights was the virtual reality floor.  Peak VR innovation for narrative experiences will surface when VR devises are wireless (getting tangled in cords kind of kills the illusion), but even at present, the makers at the festival had created some pretty stimulating content.  Within Storyscapes, the Virtual Arcade, and the Interactive Playground, designers and filmmakers partnered to immerse festival goers in virtual ‘experiences:’ flying on a dragon, deep sea diving, solitary confinement, protecting endangered species, and many others, all powered by the Oculus Rift, Gear VR, or HTC Vive. 

I spoke to a group of students from Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Entertainment Technology, who were presenting a project called ‘Injustice,’ a short narrative experience in which participants ‘witness an act of racial discrimination… forcing them to make moral and ethical decisions on the spot…exploring the emotional impact of VR space vs. traditional film.’  Adit Kothari, the project’s producer, shared that one of the biggest challenges directors and writers face when working with VR is that there is no frame.  The story must be cohesive from all angles in every direction**.  For instance, you know when you’re watching a horror film and you feel like at any moment, someone might jump out from behind your back?  With VR, there very well could be someone over your shoulder if the writers put them there.


While the advent of personal VR is rooted in gaming, its future – where we are today—reaches more diverse territories.  


VR technology has obvious benefits, yet as I was walking around the exhibits at the Tribeca festival, watching participants wearing VR headsets swiveling about in their seats, mouths agape, I was reminded of the humans in the movie Wall-E, completely isolated from each other, and looking, to be frank, quite silly.  Is VR turning us into them?  Last week Samsung released an app for ‘busy parents’ called BedTime VR Stories in which children can be told goodnight tales by their VR headset, no paternal presence necessary.  Is that more beneficial than detrimental?  Is that what we want?  Will Facebook really be able to use Oculus technology to connect us, or are we entering an age of exclusion and hyper-independence?

No longer is VR limited to gimmicks and novelties.  Now it shapes worlds. ‘The time to dream of what VR can be has passed, and the time to show what it can do has arrived,’ notes Digital Trends contributor Matt Smith.  The future is here.  What are we going to do with it, or more significantly, what will it do to us?

*…for example, Danny Abraham’s new project ‘Anne’ that places viewers inside the Holocaust hiding place of Anne Frank, giving audience a comprehensive understanding of the family’s spacial restriction.

** For non-fiction works, that could mean elevated levels of accountability for our journalists and even law enforcement. 


Averi Israel is a writer and theatre enthusiast passionate about art that starts meaningful conversations and brings participants closer to truth. New York, NY.


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