It's taken me long enough, but this week I finally got to experience Virtual Reality for the first time. I don't just mean by fastening my phone inside a velcroed cardboard box fitted with some mirrors, either. This was the real deal.
For the past few weeks, my father has been helping out at the Treehugger: Wawona experience at Margam Country Park. The aim of the installation is to make the visitor feel "as one" with nature, in an effort to increase sympathy for the Giant Sequoia tree in these times where irresponsible deforrestation is so prevalent. Contrary to what many may assume from the name of the exhibition, it actually makes use of some very sophisticated technology. I was eager to take a look at this technology, so I signed up for a visit.
After a brief presentation about the experience I was led into a darkened room - at the centre of which sat a model of the huge lower section of a giant Giant Sequoia tree. I was then guided to a seat and given a hand suiting up.
"Just how involved is this thing?", you may be asking. Like I said, this was no Google Cardboard exhibit.
On went a haptic backpack, followed by a pair of motion-tracking gloves, a headset, and a HTC Vive. Everything I'd heard up to the point where I put it on my head suggested that the Vive is an incredible piece of kit. It blew my expectations to smitherines.
When the forest world loaded around me, I felt like I'd been spawned into another world.
That's no exaggeration. Previously I'd assumed VR is akin to having your head in a sort of bubble, where you can simply take in a 360-degree view of your digital surroundings. With Treehugger, this was not the case. I was able to get up off my seat and walk around, bending down to move my hands through the grass and feeling the wind and fog on my back. It was impossible to contain my glee as a dragonfly flew past my face. The level of immersion and ability to interact with the surroundings was amazing, and very impressive when you start thinking about the obvious complexity of the software behind it all.
The real experience began when I walked up to the tree to look inside its trunk, as it started to rain, allowing me to watch as the tree took the water in from its great roots and began transporting it upwards to its canopy. I shan't spoil it for you (as if that's even possible) in case you wish to experience it for yourself one day. I would, afterall, massively recommend it if you're in the South Wales area, or if the exhibition visits a place near you in the future.
Treehugger succeeded in inspiring me - not just in a conservationist capacity, but in terms of the undeniably huge potential that Virtual Reality has for educational application. There's no way a child, or indeed an adult, would not be amazed by the feeling of being transported to another - potentially unreachable in real life - place in the world. I'm imagining rainforests and oceans, deserts and the Arctic. Perhaps, for more mature audiences, VR could be used to give an impression of what it would have felt like to be in the trenches of World War 1, to give a far more engaging history lesson than school ever provided me with. The possibilities are endless, and dependent only on the skill and ambition of VR developers. I can't wait to see what's next.
Of course, none of this will become mainstream until the general public discovers just how amazing VR can be. The jab I made earlier at low-level VR bundles such as the Google Cardboard was not a cheap one - I believe that they trivialise the true meaning of VR to the point where the majority of people associate the phrase "virtual reality" with that flimsy bit of cardboard they got sent by their potential university to allow them to take a virtual tour of the accommodation on offer. These kinds of gimmicks need to make way for the immersive experiences provided by teams like Marshmallow Lazer Feast to take hold in the public conciousness, so that higher demand for these kinds of experiences is made - so that we can start seeing more and more of this kind of technology in our everyday lives.
If you're interested in experiencing the exhibition that inspired me to write this piece, Treehugger: Wawona will be at Margam Country Park until 1st July, so head over there and try it out for yourself. For more of Marshmallow Laser Feast's amazing works and to look out for future installations, check out their Facebook page.