Virtual reality is the new tech craze, but some fear the future it offers. Opponents conjure up a bleak world where people will waste away in headsets living virtual lives because they prefer the virtual world to the real one. They argue that VR marks the beginning of losing touch with our humanity.
Sankar (Jay) Jayaram, the CEO of Voke, a virtual reality company that focuses on immersive live-streams of sports and music events, disagrees. He says that virtual reality will make people more engaged with the real world and more connected to their humanity, not less.
He sees virtual reality as an extension, not a replacement of our existing lives.
“The cell phone and internet helps a grandmother see the first steps of her grandchild on another continent over Skype,” Jayaram said. “In reality, she is not in the same room physically to witness the event. So was she part of the reality or was she not? Did her participation replace the ‘real’ reality? Of course not.”
Voke is staking its future on this vision. Jayaram answered GeekWire’s questions following the news that the sports and music virtual-reality company has raised 12.5 million from investors including Intel Capital, A&E and Nautilus Ventures, along with the Sacramento Kings NBA team.
Now based in Silicon Valley, Voke traces to its roots to Washington State University, where its two co-founders, the husband-and-wife team of Sankar (Jay) Jayaram and Uma Jayaram, previously founded the Virtual Reality and Computer Integrated Manufacturing Lab.
In his own life, Jayaram is a big sports fan. He loves football, basketball, soccer, and cricket — in fact, he plays in a competitive cricket league. Jayaram especially likes to watch games in person, where he can feel the energy of the players and the crowd, so he started designing virtual reality experiences for fans who couldn’t be in the stadium, but wanted to feel like they were. For Jayaram, the whole reason to get into virtual reality was to be better connected to the real world, not to escape it or to replace it with something completely different.
A few weeks after the purchase of Oculus Rift by Facebook, Voke transmitted live footage of a soccer match — “what was possibly the first ever live event streamed in real-time and in real stereoscopic VR to a headset,” Jayaram said.
Filming from the stadium’s skybox, Voke was able to give viewers the feeling of standing with coaches on the field, he said. The view was better than the seats most fans would ever have, but fans only wanted that view because they already loved the game. Virtual reality augments those real life interests and connections, it doesn’t replace them, Jayaram said.
“Similarly, in fall 2014, we worked with the Jacksonville Jaguars and streamed every home game in real time to Oculus Rift headsets in their FanCave,” Jayaram said. “Viewers not only had a virtual field pass to the game, but they could choose from one of multiple camera positions at will, in real-time, during the game. They could also rewind from one camera position and jump to another and view the play from a different position.”
The whole reason for fans to watch the game in VR with all the enhanced features that it offers was to be more deeply immersed in a game they already loved, not to check out of their world.
Jayaram hopes to continue blurring the lines between the virtual and the actual, believing that we are on the edge of many new possibilities for human experience.
For instance, at the VR lab at Washington State University, Jayaram put on a headset that placed him on a virtual roof. He was shocked by how real the sensation of vertigo felt.
“I walked to the edge and just could not make myself ‘walk’ off, even though I knew that I was really on solid ground on the second floor of a brick building that was our lab,” he said. Wearing the headset allowed him to contemplate life, death, perception, and conviction — concepts central to what it means to be human — but without the risk of being on an actual precipice.
During his time at the VR lab at WSU, Jayaram worked on features for virtual reality that would enhance its feeling of ‘realness,’ including adding in virtual body parts and tactile sensations.
“We built experiences that allowed people to see their virtual hands with full dexterous fingers,” Jayaram said. People could pick up objects and experience friction and gravity in virtual reality the way they would when picking up actual, physical objects, he said.
As the line between the virtual and the actual blurs, though, opponents get increasingly fearful that people will no longer be able to tell what is real and what isn’t.
In response, Jayaram contested the idea that there has ever been a “real” reality. He brought up the white and gold vs. blue and black dress debate, saying that the debate shows “there is no single, monolithic, immutable reality.”
“[Reality] is a spectrum of sorts,” he said. “And to that, we now add virtual reality.”
Jayaram added that today’s reality has changed a lot from reality in the past. Nowadays, we have cell phones, TVs, and the internet, but Jayaram didn’t have any of those things growing up, he said. Because our perception of what constitutes reality changes with the times, it’s hard to say that there is any “real” reality that we’d be losing touch with when we experience life in VR.
“Should we roll back to a reality where there would be no technology-assisted blurring of reality?” Jayaram continued. “[T]hese technologies expand our reality and make it that much richer for all.”
Ultimately, Jayaram sees the promise of virtual reality as just that: a technology that will enrich people’s lives by better connecting them to the activities, experiences, and people that are meaningful to them. If anything, virtual reality will make people more connected to their humanity, not less.
“The hope is that [virtual reality] becomes something as significant and dramatic in impact as the mobile phone,” Jayaram said. “[A]s the technology evolves, people will continue to come up with compelling content and important applications to serve a wide spectrum of people.”