The Year in VR: From Pearl Harbor to the Stratosphere

A sampler of virtual reality air and space experiences that came out in 2016.

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Ride along with a Mars rover, or a moon rover. Both trips are possible in VR.

In these early, lo-fi days of virtual reality, it’s hard to say just what the technology is good for, other than showing off to fellow nerds and wowing Grandma. Storytelling? Not yet, as nobody has quite figured out the conventions of narrative in a medium where viewers can direct their attention anywhere. Long-distance socializing?  Also not yet, although some people believe this is VR’s ultimate potential.

The one clear advantage VR has over photos and videos, even with today’s clunky headsets, is that it can, if done well, heighten our sense of presence. It can take us there. The best current example may be sports, where VR can give you the best seat in the house, at least visually. (I haven’t yet coughed up $6.99 to watch a whole NBA game live in VR, but I’ve seen enough highlights to be intrigued.)

So where did VR take us in 2016, and were the trips worth it?  Here are a few hits and misses from the past year (all viewable in Gear VR and/or Google Cardboard):

  • Pearl Harbor.  Two top VR producers—LIFE VR and Jaunt—marked the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor with short films. Both relied mostly on voiceover narration by WW2 veterans to tell the story, which is smart, since in VR it’s far better to listen than to read. But beyond that similarity, the films were very different. While LIFE places us in animated recreations of a 1940s living room or a burning battleship, Jaunt took their 360-degree camera to Oshkosh, Wisconsin to film commemorative flyovers of actual warbirds. Each approach has its merits and drawbacks. The flyovers at Oshkosh happen too quickly, and our vantage point changes too often (a common failing when 2-D film editors try their hand at VR) to sustain the illusion of being there. LIFE’s animated world is better in many ways (the cartoon-y, Van Gogh-inspired Night Café is one of the more immersive experiences I’ve tried). But in both films, you spend a lot of time looking at black-and-white pictures or watching someone speak. And you end up wondering whether a straight video wouldn’t have been just as effective.
  • Two roads to Mars.  If you want the full version of The Martian VR Experience, you’ll need a higher-end HTC Vive or Playstation VR headset. But nothing I saw in the short trailer available for Gear VR made me want to rush out to upgrade. I was more entertained (and convinced) by this 80-second ride alongside the Curiosity Mars rover, produced by the Dutch company Mirage 3D.
  • Apollo on the moon. Also from the Netherlands, artist Thomas Kole has come up with a nice little app for Cardboard called Apollo 15 Moon Landing VR. I’ve been wondering when somebody would try to convert the huge amount of visual and technical material on Apollo into a VR experience, and Kole’s is one of the best I’ve seen. He had to take some shortcuts in rendering the landscape around Hadley Rille, but it’s based on actual data at least. And I learned something about how the lunar rover was packaged by watching it unfold as I “stood” alongside.
  • Remembering Le Voyage. This one is a little weird, but it made me smile: A VR “moviehouse” showing a colorized version of Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon). You’re really just watching a film, same as you would on a flat screen, but think of it as 21st-century illusionists paying homage to their 20th-century forebears.
  • The view from 100,000 feet. The stratosphere has become a hot destination, so it’s no surprise that people have started sending up 360-degree cameras to take a look around. Edge of Space, produced by Arte360 VR, takes you behind the scenes of a project to capture such a view. I preferred the simplicity of Discovery VR’s Journey to the Edge of Space, where a narrator just tells you how high you are and how fast you’re climbing during the (VR) ascent, as rain and sleet fall all around —the kind of small touch that helps you imagine, for a moment, that you’re really there.

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