My husband and I went to the Motor Show in Edmonton to research vehicles for an upcoming purchase and I took the opportunity to try a virtual reality exhibit sponsored by Volkswagen. Never having had the opportunity to experience VR, I stood in line and took my turn.
The equipment was relatively inobtrusive and I was able to function well without my glasses. It took a few seconds for the program to kick in. Once it did, I saw a VW logo and was instructed by the assistant to push the button. Distances were hard to judge, and there is no haptic feedback, so I put my hand right through the button and the program brought up a crystal ball. Grasping the crystal ball began the summer portion of the program. I was standing in a grain field and could see the grain blowing, an airplane travelling across the sky and a combine in the distance. And of course behind me there was a Volkswagen parked at the edge of the field.
I was instructed to move ahead, using very small steps to go more deeply into the field. In all, I travelled through four seasons. The fall scene included a bed of maple leaves that I was encouraged to through into the air. The leaves rose into the air and dropped back to the ground but I was unable to get them up into the air the way they would in reality. One disconcerting aspect to this scene was the cliff – probably a creek bank – that triggered my natural vertigo. I was surprised at how powerful the sensation was because I was consciously analysing the experience for its authenticity.
The most interesting scene was winter. I was presented with snowballs on a mound of snow and encouraged to throw the snowball at the VW that was sitting about three metres away. The snowballs could only be thrown if my arm movement was precise – overhand and fairly vigorous. I experimented with controlling the distance I was throwing and the part of the car I was hitting. The snowballs tended to overshoot the car, but when they hit, there was a satisfying explosion of snow.
The last season, spring, was an ocean scene. I was standing in a semi-circle of small stones. I was instructed to move the stones aside so that I could move ahead. This was the end of the program and an assistant helped me remove the equipment.
My primary interest in VR was as a training tool for Olympic Style fencing. Those of us outside of huge urban centres find very few training partners. We very quickly adapt to the few partners we can fence with and so are at a disadvantage when we go to competitions. VR then suggests lots of possibilities for finding multiple fencing partners whose skill level could be adapted to maximise training sessions. There were a few obvious challenges. Distance, which is a crucial component in fencing, is problematic. At several points in my VR experience, I got close enough to the edge of the program that the grid appeared. There is also no way to determine the distance from the object you are interacting with, so in fencing, you’d have no idea how far away from the opponent you were, so the actions of using footwork to optimise distance, and finishing an attack with a touch are impossible to practice with the program.
Still, all in all, it was in interesting experience and as the technology improves, it will provide opportunities for many applications.