Gear VR is everywhere at Mobile World Congress, but the picture you’ve probably seen – and maybe laughed at – is the sea of Samsung-visor’d journalists blissfully unaware Mark Zuckerberg is strolling past. After all, it’s easy to scorn those deep in the virtual reality experience, or point out that wearing a head-mounted display can leave you looking silly.
It’s true. But, honestly, it misses the point.
Anybody in the midst of doing something they’re engrossed in stands a fair chance of looking at least faintly ridiculous. The grimace on the face of a gymnast, or the bulging eyes of a javelin thrower. The visible shock and disgust spread across the audience in a horror movie.
Martin, my piano teacher growing up, always used to stick the tongue out of the side of his mouth when he was playing.
He looked silly, but the music was great and he was enjoying himself.
I’ve seen photos and video of myself while I’ve been playing a virtual reality game, or immersed in a 3D experience, and I invariably look entirely stupid. Sometimes my jaw is lolling open, like I’m an elderly dog by a fire, and sometimes I have a double (or even a triple) chin.
There’s a degree of embarrassment, certainly, in the knowledge that other people might be watching me, and seeing how dumb I look, while I can’t see them staring. Are they taking photos? Are they laughing at me?
If the VR experience is working, though, I’m not having those doubts until later on, if I’m having them at all. In the moment, I’m too busy being convinced that I’m underwater, or in space, or painting in 3D all around myself, or fighting off zombies.
When it’s working, it doesn’t matter what you look like. Just because the images you’re seeing aren’t real, doesn’t mean they’re not engaging and convincing.
The very best we can hope for from a virtual reality experience is to be emotionally impacted by it. That, surely, is why we’ve been waiting for high-definition graphics, and razor-scant latency, and 3D audio. Wouldn’t it be weird to be immersed in such a believable space, and be physically unmoved?
I get it.
People making weird faces are funny.
Head-mounted displays are still fairly unusual, so they’re funny too. Put them together – maybe with some flailing arms as people frantically gesture with whatever controllers they have – and you have a perfect recipe for some excellent “look at this idiot geek” memes.
The tech star of those memes used to be the Bluetooth headset. At one point it was the phablet – honestly, who’d use such a comically large phone? Then it was Google Glass.
Actually, Glass is still pretty dumb looking.
But our capacity to normalize knows few limits, and it would be a damn shame if the pleasures VR can offer were diluted by being unduly self-conscious about it.
Embrace immersion. Even if – hell, especially if – you look like you’re lost in the moment.
Regarding the hero image at the head of this article: Thanks to Robert Leedham for being an unwitting model and good sport.