Let’s Get Real About VR and Mixed Reality

There are some valid reasons why you haven't tried VR or mixed reality

Man wearing a VR headset

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Wearing helmets will never be a natural thing. It’s why so many adult bike riders hate wearing them. It’s also a key limiting factor for the growth of augmented, mixed, and virtual reality. Even the relatively low-profile Google Glass, which offered only a limited version of augmented reality, was too much for most people (just go look up “glassholes”). 

All this was on my mind as I tried out yet another recently released mixed reality headset, the Lenovo Mirage AR, running a new Disney/Marvel experience called Marvel Dimension of Heroes. You can read my hands-on report here

But as I wore the headset and held the controllers, feeling utterly ridiculous and a little uncomfortable, I wondered how far we are from mixed reality that requires nothing more than my glasses, or VR that feels as comfortable as wearing a baseball cap.

VR and AR Headgear Comfort Needs Work

Over the last few months, I’ve been using Facebook’s impressive Oculus Quest headset. It’s a self-contained VR headset with a pair of excellent controllers. It’s immersive and fun, but I can’t use it for more than, say, 10 minutes at a time.

The Oculus Quest has enough adjustability. There are three Velcro straps: one on each side of the head and one on top of the head. They offer decent support, but I can’t quite adjust them properly so that the weight of the device doesn’t press down against my forehead until I get a low-level headache.

Reasons you still don't use VR

  • It's expensive
  • It's uncomfortable
  • It's weird
  • It's lonely
Man freaks out while wearing VR headgear
Tell me this doesn't look weird.

Facebook and Oculus might consider going the Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 route. That mixed reality headgear has most of the heavy technology on the back of the device and a single band that tightens around the skull. It still looks wacky and is not totally comfortable, but it’s a step in the right direction.

For those not experiencing VR, seeing others doing it can be somewhat off-putting.

 The other day I was sitting in my home office playing the VR game Sairento VR: Untethered when I heard my wife duck her head into the room. I couldn’t see her, but I heard her voice as she muttered to herself ruefully, “Oh, God. Some husbands watch porn.” For the record, you can watch adult content in VR or AR, something that I imagine might put you off of VR for a lifetime.

 The problem is that I’m having an experience that literally no one else in my own home can see (I could hand someone my phone and livestream the experience, but that’s not the same thing).

 At least with mixed reality, you can maintain a fine tether to the real world. VR, on the other hand, is a fundamentally isolating experience. And its growth comes at a time where we’re starting to discover that some digital technology, like social media, is possibly creating too much isolation. Facebook has made some attempts to connect people via social VR, but the bitter aftertaste of obsolete platforms like Second Life make me, and I suspect others, less inclined to give them a shot.

Are We Built for Long-Term VR Use?

The other thing I’ve been thinking about, especially as I spend more and more time in VR and AR, is how jarring it can be to return to the real world.

 When I take off my Oculus Quest, I feel as if I’m stepping out of a spaceship and back onto Mother Earth. I feel odd and not quite connected to the real world. Fortunately, this feeling wears off after a few moments.

VR, on the other hand, is a fundamentally isolating experience.

As the hardware inevitably shrinks and gets more affordable, more people will try and lose themselves in these virtual worlds. Will the Surgeon General belatedly discover that these experiences are rewiring our brains? I’m serious, we have no idea what living in VR can do to humans.

Of course, that’s a long-term worry. Right now, many still wonder if VR can even survive outside of gaming circles (where it’s booming). Most people, including Apple, see augmented reality, even the limited type we get through smartphone screens, as the true future of our manufactured reality. We are years—or longer—away from mass adoption.
My guess is most people won’t experience VR until it’s a Star Trek Holodeck-level experience. Until then, a small group of us will continue wearing oddball headgear, battling monsters and demons, and playing VR table tennis, all the while complaining that our heads hurt.