The technology industry is watching the launch of big-name virtual reality devices like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift with great interest. If there is even a hint this hardware will generate actual consumer demand outside of the true believers that are already sold about jumping into their favorite video games, expect nearly everyone to come onboard.
Almost all the major tech companies are already hiring up and the film and television industry have begun to dip their toes into the VR waters, and we're beginning to see the first steps toward what could be the technology's true killer apps: completely virtual environments for work and play.
Why do we want non-VR content in VR?
We take reality for granted in a way that's only obvious after spend a significant amount of time in virtual reality. You pay a lot of money for a large television screen that's locked to a single size, and then you physically connect it to a single wall and arrange your viewing schedule around those decisions.
How big a screen would you like? What does it get? In the current system of viewing content those questions both require one answer. You can take your laptop anywhere, but of course the trade-off is a smaller screen.
Virtual reality destroys the idea of an arbitrary screen. Why not play your games or watch your movies in a virtual environment where the screen could be any size and could be placed anywhere you like? Valve itself is showing a solution to this "problem."
"SteamVR Desktop Theater Mode is in early beta, and will be showcased at next week's Game Developer Conference in San Francisco," Valve said in a news release. "Desktop Theater Mode enables users to play non-VR games with VR systems such as the upcoming HTC Vive and others."
It's interesting that Valve is creating programs that will work with other VR platforms such as the Oculus Rift — or at least we're assuming that hardware will be included from the "and others" wording — but what's more interesting is that Valve itself knows the utility of creating environments in which to view content that wasn't initially designed for VR.
Darshan Shanker is the founder and CEO of BigScreen, a company creating a program for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift that wants to make viewing all sorts of content better in VR than it is on a standard screen. Microsoft has already announced the ability to stream Xbox One content to your PC, to be played in a virtual movie theater.
"The best content out there today are TV shows like Game of Thrones and games like Rocket League," he explained via e-mail. "Virtual reality and BigScreen can be the best way to experience the existing content we already love. This is especially compelling in the early days of VR when there's a limited amount of awesome VR content (compared to the decades of non-VR content we have)."
But we have existing screens, why bother viewing that content through a headset that wraps around your face? "First of all, a bigger screen, hence the name BigScreen!" he explained. "Why spend all day hunched over a tiny 13" laptop when you could have massive screens of any size and shape, best suited to the content and your needs? You could have your own movie theater-sized screen!"
Virtual reality destroys the idea of an arbitrary screen
There are other social applications for the software, and we'll be covering those in future stories after we've been able to try the technology, but announcements like Valve's Desktop Theater Mode and programs like BigScreen are the first steps in showing how much better virtual reality can display content than your current screens.
Why not connect a headset to your laptop so you can work on a giant screen instead of your laptop's relatively tiny display? Why not work in a virtual environment where you can create screens with a button press, change their size, and move them wherever you'd like? One screen for entertainment, one screen for work and, if someone tries to call you, you can create a third screen to take the call and chat with them in video. If a screen becomes more important to your workflow, simply make it bigger and move it in front of you.
We see workstations in software development with multiple screens, but if you could start with one screen and then add a nearly limitless number of displays with differing sizes and even shapes? Once you begin to think about a truly virtual environment you can begin to play with the idea of what's possible: What about lights around you that gradually change color as you receive more e-mail, or blink when it's time for an important call? What if you work better when your desk is floating underwater, or in an asteroid belt?
Many of these things are further out than I would like, or don't all happen in one program — although if you have an existing Development Kit 2 from Oculus you need to check out Virtual Desktop — but these ideas and more are coming. While gaming is, of course, the initial push for the technology and things like education may be a close second; virtual reality has the ability to completely change how we view existing content while giving us the tool needed to adjust our own virtual environments to react to data and workflow in real time.
It's that ability to display whatever I want, in whatever size, shape and placement I prefer, that has me the most excited about virtual reality.