Virtual reality doesn’t have to be scary. Truly.

Virtual reality doesn’t have to be scary. Truly.

Virtual reality doesn't have to be scary. Truly.

Let it be said straight away: I am a fan of virtual reality. And it’s been a tough few weeks for me.

The trouble started with a photo from Mobile World Congress of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg walking alongside a crowd of people seemingly lost in their own little virtual realities.

In this image, many people saw shades of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” or even “The Matrix”:

It sparked a flurry of pundits and pontificates about how scary VR can be.

And that’s completely understandable. Even as someone who really loves VR and all it promises, I admit that one of the biggest weaknesses of VR headsets is how they look from the outside. The fact that every person in this audience misses the fact that Zuckerberg walks past them worsens the image of virtual reality as an isolating activity. So are all the cringe-inducing social media images of people wearing them on the subway, unaware of their fellow travelers and, presumably, equally unconcerned about getting off at the right stop.

But while it’s easy to see a future of loneliness, unsettling escapism, or machine domination in the image of Mobile World Congress, “The Matrix” wasn’t my first thought upon looking at that image. (Although it was, I admit, my second.)

I immediately thought of people watching a movie with 3D glasses. And there is a big difference. Read the first way people are cut off from each other. In the second, they collectively participate in a familiar activity in a new way. (Although, yes, I admit they still look even crazier than your average movie theater audience.) It’s definitely exciting, at least to me. And, at least according to Zuckerberg, that’s what’s really going on in this photo – all these people were watching a football game.

(Also see: Oculus Rift: Bringing Reality to the Virtual World)

There are still a lot of things to settle on virtual reality, of course. For one thing, it’s unclear how adoption will actually work. Some people have suggested that movie theaters could be the way to bring the mainstream into technology, as a variation of the theatrical experience that gives people an on-ramp to technology in an environment where it’s already normal to sit with strangers and not talk. to each other at all.

But there are a few hiccups to work out, namely all the logistics. “I think it’s still very, very early days,” said Patrick Corcoran, director of communications at the National Association of Theater Owners. Depending on the type of film being shown, attendees may want to take a walk. Even if you’re sitting and watching, you could turn your head and collide with the person next to you. “The logistics of building an auditorium, how to keep people from crossing each other – nobody imagined how it would really work.”

In my opinion, the best way to use virtual reality will not be for everyone to attend an event and then everyone put on individual headsets to watch something else. The goal is not to be alone together. It’s for experiencing something new – maybe in a movie theater, sure, but more likely in your own living room.

It could even be a social tool of sorts, used for attending a concert or finding out what it would be like to sit courtside at a sporting event you could never afford tickets to. You might visit places you’ve never been or wander through real estate you can’t access. As someone who has spent a lot of time far away from my family – yes, I’ve even video-conferenced over holiday meals – the idea that technology exists not just to talk to my family members at abroad, but also to play a game of catching up with them is quite exciting.

Far from replacing what you can do walking outside your door, virtual reality can be, at best, a tool for accessing more of the world and staying in touch.

But people won’t use things that don’t make sense to them. We’ve seen it with products that were launched with a lot of hype and never really caught on. (Like, to be fair, 3D technology.) So if virtual reality is to survive, it’s up to the industry and the people who see its potential to make it easy to use, easy to love, and – most important – necessary enough to keep people functioning.

Many devices had to overcome some creepy or silly factor. Brick-like cellphones looked silly. The headphones seemed isolating. The camera cell phone sounded crazy even in 2004. If it works, people will come.

Although . . . please. Stop wearing them on the subway. Ultimately, we can find people with VR headsets on trains as normal as your regular smartphone user with headphones. Right now, though, we’re trying to convince people, and you’re making us look bad.

© 2016 The Washington Post

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