VR and 3D: Cool Tech but Real Head Cases

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Some of my favorite experiences in consumer electronics have involved headgear. Not the clunky, heavy contraptions themselves to be sure, but the sensation of being transported to another place and in some cases, another time.

A couple of weeks ago I took in the mesmerizing Van Gogh immersive experience in New York. Digitized images of Van Gogh works are projected onto walls, some incorporating motion, bringing images to life with a pleasing soundtrack to create a captivating multimedia experience. Starry Night surrounded us on four walls and across the floor. Wheatfield with Crows came alive when virtual birds flew around the walls. The distant train in Landscape with a Carriage and a Train was energized, chugging through a field in Auvers.

I had seen enough reviews of the various Van Gogh experiences around the country — and in Emily in Paris — to get an inkling of what to expect from the hour-long exhibit that wraps you in 360-degree, oversized, digital canvasses. What I wasn’t expecting — and was completely blown away by — was the personal virtual reality trip that followed the large-room viewing.

It was about 10 minutes of wow. I tilted my head up, down, port side and starboard taking the virtual tour inside several van Gogh paintings. You walk through the door of Bedroom in Arles, down stairs and into other worlds: through a field, a forest, a village and then end up under the Starry Night with the Rhone lapping in the background. I would have asked to do it again (and ponied up another $5 on top of the $55 ticket fee), it was so captivating, but the heft of the Oculus headset started wearing on me. My trip through Vincent’s 19th century France was hijacked by the weight of 21st century technology.

I had a similar reaction to 3D when the TV industry tried to bring that experience to the living room TV a decade ago. I knew 3D wouldn’t fly because people generally don’t like to wear stuff on their head while relaxing in the “lean-back” TV experience — even though 3D glasses were far lighter than the Oculus headset at the van Gogh exhibit. I may have tried a 3D movie or two at home for the novelty of it, but content was limited and what was there didn’t interest me — content- or quality-wise. Badly done 3D is a recipe for seasickness.

At the movies? I often upgrade to the 3D experience when it’s available. Hugo wouldn’t have been the same magical movie for me if I had watched it in 2D. Polar Express was awesome, too. And when 3D is done well, I find it’s easier to watch than 2D. To me, it feels like my eyes don’t have to compensate for lack of dimension. I know it’s not that way for everyone, and a lot of people can’t watch 3D without getting nauseous or dizzy. Apparently, my ocular system is more forgiving of 3D than most.

In a 2013 interview, ophthalmic photographer Timothy Bennett of Penn State University’s Hershey Eye Center said 3D viewing requires eye muscles to work separately, rather than in tandem in the natural world. That can cause strain and fatigue that lead to a headache, he said. But for two hours at a theater? Sign me up for 3D — when Covid is over, that is.

TV makers were careful to protect themselves against any negative side effects, sounding like the electronics version of a drug commercial warning of headaches, altered vision, lightheadedness, disorientation and the really scary one, convulsions. A Samsung 3D warning from a 2010 Huffington Post article said: “Among the at-risk groups Samsung highlights are pregnant women, young children, teens, the elderly, people prone to seizures or stroke, people prone to dizziness or motion sickness, people with eye problems, people who are out of shape, and people who have been drinking.”

That wraps in a lot of us. No wonder 3D didn’t take off.

Still, I was disappointed when 3D TV collapsed. I spent a day at ESPN headquarters a decade ago when ESPN 3D launched with a World Cup soccer match between Mexico and South Africa. Sure, there were glitches — dropouts, some pixelation and a jarring need to refocus if someone unexpectedly crossed in front of a 3D camera. Those things would have been fixed over time, I’m sure.

The soccer game didn’t impress me as much as golf footage from the Masters in 3D. I remember falling blossoms in one shot, which made me feel like I was standing in a shower of petals. Being an inept golfer myself, I was heartened by the detail 3D brought out on TV: the height of the green and the bunker on the 10th hole gave a convincing sense of how difficult it was to reach the green. Three D made the contour of the fairway on the 11th hole look like moguls on a challenging ski slope. In 2D, buildings on the perimeter of Augusta National disappear into an unfocused background; in 3D, they were clear and real, making me feel like I was there.

After a brave experiment, ESPN shut down the 3D channel eight years ago. I get why it didn’t make it, but it’s one of those coulda shoulda woulda tech disappointments for me. Three D was transporting. I don’t think I’ve watched golf on TV since, knowing what it could be on TV.

VR is suffering some of the same challenges 3D did – and more. As much as I loved the van Gogh experience, I wasn’t motivated to buy an Oculus Quest or a Samsung to play at home. They’re expensive, heavy, cumbersome and require accessories — and I’m not a gamer. I would only want to experience high-quality content like artwork. A visit to VR World NYC is in my future, I think.

So, now, 2021’s spin on head-worn tech gear comes from Ray-Ban and Facebook: a lighter, outward-oriented, user-generated video experience from a pair of ordinary-looking sunglasses. Not that it hasn’t been tried before. Google Glass came and went. Now Ray-Ban Stories (ugh!) steps up to the plate. Mark Zuckerberg shows what you can do with the glasses in a fencing video on his Facebook page. As appealing as it would be to take video walking down the street without having to hold up my phone, I don’t want to wear sneaky electronics, and I really don’t want others to spy on me.

The $299 Stories shades, currently on backorder at Best Buy, have raised a brow at Ireland’s Data Protection Commission, TechCrunch reported. The DPC asked Facebook to demonstrate that an LED indicator light adjacent to the camera, which blinks when the wearer is taking a video, “is an effective way of putting other people on notice that they are being recorded.”

No one asked me, but I’ll weigh in on smart glasses anyway: I think not.

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