Welcome To The Virtual World, Portsmouth

Image of HTC Vive by Maurizio Pesce Under Creative Commons license 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

JS Adams explores virtual reality at the White Elephant in Southsea and finds himself imagining the potential of a whole new (virtual) world.

I am at the White Elephant in Cromwell Road Southsea, home to an arts community and shop. A small unassuming place, White Elephant holds a new porthole, a star gate, a digital rabbit hole – call it what you will, it takes visitors to another world. The virtual world, that is.

Like Neo in The Matrix, I find myself chasing the White Rabbit.  Entering this venue through a bright pink and orange doorway, I see people in the gloom, standing about as if waiting for something. As I draw nearer, I see they are standing around a man wearing a strange headset of some kind and waving his arms about manically, as if in his own private disco. In his blunderings, he accidentally knocks over a nearby picture stand and sends a lava lamp flying, much to the amusement of onlookers. He then outstretches his arms and tries to steady himself, as if he is on a surfboard.

“Woooooooooo shit!’ he shouts, ‘Oh My God!”

He laughs loudly, before almost falling backwards. Steadying himself he removes the headset, his face red, and compares his experience to a rollercoaster ride.

He examines the technology that enabled this experience with satisfied curiosity before passing it onto the next eager patron ready to fling himself into the virtual abyss.

The next chap seems even more inquisitive than the last; he squats down to examine the carpet. A monitor nearby displays what he is viewing:  a hilly countryside valley. He crouches into an almost foetal position, staring at the virtual grass with extreme interest. A robot dog appears and he throws it sticks to fetch, before placing his head inside the robot dog to see how it works.

The next patron is very much like the first. She waves her arms about wildly and shrieks at some imagined phantom. The effect this device has seems different on everyone who enters the world it contains.

So here we are: White Elephant. A quiet little side street venue, now holding court to the latest craze, the next big thing: Virtual Reality, or VR for short. White Elephant has tried many innovations in the past, connecting the dots of artistic culture in a disjointed city often separated by class illusions and struggling families working hard to make ends meet. For any family, this is a cheap day out, a weekend excursion to another universe without even leaving Pompey.  With this in mind, White Elephant is the first venue (of what will probably be many) in Portsmouth to be exhibiting the concept of VR to locals, in particular HTC Vive.

You may have seen movies that depict Virtual Reality, such as the Matrix films, but the reality is closer to Tron or perhaps The Lawnmower Man. HTC Vive is a gaming headset that connects to a powerful PC.  The Vive headset offers much more adaptability than other gaming headsets such as Oculus Riff  (which only offers a seated experience) and gives its patron full mobility, allowing you to walk around any environment freely, limited only by the length of the umbilical cable.

Eventually I don the headset and find myself in somebody’s kitchen, it’s not exactly The Matrix but I’m pretty impressed anyway.  The place is like a showroom, overlooking the ocean; I hear the waves lapping upon the shore and the sound of seagulls far off somewhere. I have two remotes to use for actions like grabbing objects and as I walk about the environment, my body tenses as I stumble through a table. It’s not real of course but the mind makes it real. I feel slightly giddy from the experience, as if I am underwater, or exploring a strange new environment with somebody else’s glasses that are too strong. Even my sense of smell is affected.

Quickly my eyes and body adapt and the experience feels less strange to my senses.  I find myself in the open countryside, upon a mountain top with only an overly enthusiastic robot dog for company. He’s a cute little fellow, like a squeezebox on four stumpy legs and a large single eye where his head should be. I throw him sticks to fetch and take in the scenic beauty. I look over the cliff edge and feel the giddiness reaching over me again.  I hear the wind rushing passed my ears and the squawks of distant birds circling above me.

Next, I’m a space pirate upon a large landing platform overlooking some distant alien cities, while an immense freighter drifts silently overhead into the reddened twilight skies of another world. I hold in my hands a cool-looking laser blaster and a transparent shield and I’m fending off flying drones with all my might. The brain is fooled totally.

I can imagine virtual reality becoming a new addiction – holidays in your own mind.  One day this will be in all our houses. One day, we may never need to leave the comfort of our homes again. Of course obesity might be a problem with this type of thing, particularly for slob culture.  We may all one day fall prey to the mesmerising allure of VR, much like bumming around Facebook to waste a few hours of boredom. But in VR, hours could soon become days or even weeks while humans evolve into couch-potato, pizza-filled blobs in our secluded little dwellings.

Much like other new technologies such as 3D printing, VR technology has the potential to be abused in many ways, such as remote theft: sending in drones to do your dirty work for you.  But there are also many positives to this brave new world.

Devices like this could assist us in ways we never could imagine, like personal fitness. Treadmills are boring. But what if you could run on the surface of another planet? Or in downtown Manhattan? Or learn how to fly a glider or improve your archery skills? Or to be intimate with your partner when you’re on opposite sides of the world?

You could learn Kung Fu on a long, laborious air trip, show potential customers products in your VR showroom or walk potential investors through the blueprints of your new building, air ship, or space cruiser without having to physically be there. You could be the CGI movie star of the future. And that’s all before we think about space travel – when the HTC Vive becomes the equivalent of the Holodeck in Star Trek – extremely handy for those long, long flights to other worlds.

Did I mention Avatar Drones?

The next leap in VR technology will most likely be adapting the tech to replace manual labour. A robot controlled by a VR operator is likely to be more palatable for the general public than a cold autonomous machine, and still maintains the aspect of a human making the decisions.  Robot avatars could even replace the need for humans to physically work at factories ever again. Why not control the robots from your own living room?  Build a car, a boat (or twenty) and then potter about in the garden for a bit.

Avatar (AV) Drones could be sent out to form the complex tasks required by a human without the human having to be there. Why be at the bottom of the ocean fixing that leaky pipe when an AV drone can do it without you leaving the office? And what about crime? Police could send in the AV drones while they sit in the station wearing VR gear and chewing on donuts, whilst their Robocop puppets politely ask your pisshead student neighbours to turn the music down.

AV Drones could fix the next Chernobyl or Fukushima, putting out fires, and rescuing trapped victims in earthquakes, collapsed mines or sunken submarines. They could fix our satellites; instead of sending Earthlings into space, we could maintain the Hubble Telescope with a roving drone that makes the necessary repairs and hops off to the next broken satellite. Mission to Mars? No problem. Who needs the Mars 100 when you have the AV drones scouting new frontiers?

But I digress. Back on planet Earth, the potential of HTC Vive is almost limitless as a teaching aid for schools and colleges, armies, politicians, mechanics, or the medical profession. Even artists can get in on the action, ‘painting’ in 3D, sort of like sculpting using a paint brush. And for ordinary joes like us, wandering Southsea of a weekend, it’s just plain good fun.

Who knows where Virtual Reality is leading us, but one thing strikes me as certain as I remove the headset and return to the real world. Places like White Elephant are showing us the future.

Get involved, Pompey, then watch this space…

Find out more about White Elephant and their adventures in virtual reality over at their Facebook page.

Image of HTC Vive by Maurizio Pesce under Creative Commons license 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.