Virtual Reality Is Here, & It's Awesome

This story was originally published on September 11, 2015.
Virtual reality isn't just for gamers and geeks. It's not for sci-fi aficionados, and it's not for tech bros. After decades as a pipe dream and awkward reality, VR is here, for everyone: for the rich, the poor, the fashionistas, the dreamers. While the headsets are still cumbersome, the amazing, useful, and genuinely inspiring applications of this burgeoning technology are rolling in, and you (yes, you) will soon learn that virtual reality isn't nerdy; it's awesome.

I'll be honest. Personally, I'm late to board the virtual reality train. I got my first modern VR experience less than a year ago, I've only experienced the Samsung Gear VR a handful of times, and only recently (finally!) got to try the Oculus Rift. I've been skeptical. Eh, I can see how gamers would enjoy this, but I'd rather be outside experiencing the world, not experiencing it through a headset strapped to my face. But, each experience has left me completely blown away and even more convinced of virtual reality's transformative power.

I'll start with one of my most recent encounters: virtually experiencing the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra playing Beethoven's 5th Symphony. The L.A. Phil is touring with a project it calls "Van Beethoven" — a bus outfitted with six chairs and a carpet from The Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. Each seat is equipped with a Samsung Gear VR, so you can see, listen, and feel like you're actually at the orchestra. The bus will be touring for five weeks beginning September 11; it will head to the L.A. county fair, the Korean festival, and a variety of other community events and locales, to reach people who might not ordinarily be interested in (or able to visit) the L.A. Philharmonic.
Video: Courtesy YouTube.
"The whole idea is that access to classical music is for everyone. Music is a human right," Amy Seidenwurm, the L.A. Philharmonic's director of digital initiatives, told Refinery29. "We're taking the concert hall experience into the community instead of expecting them to come to us."

And then there's Henry, a short film that WIRED called "the most important movie of 2015." Henry is a film developed entirely for the Oculus VR experience. It's Pixar-like, about a hedgehog who has trouble making and keeping friends because of his pesky spikes. But, it goes beyond Up or Wall-E. You're not just watching and commiserating with the movie's title character from in front of a screen; you're there, in the room. You can turn your head upwards to see balloons dancing overhead, or peek over ledges to see what's downstairs. It's like a ballet in that what's happening in front and around you is orchestrated, but in the end, it's up to you to decide where you want to focus — on the lead in the foreground, or on that curious corps de ballet member posing at the back.

Of course, the whole headset aspect of these activities is still prohibitive (and weird). It usually requires the help of a second person — to tighten straps so the contraption fits just right, so your gaze is naturally facing forward towards the images that are emblazoned in front of your retinas (although, I'm sure this can probably be done solo with some practice). Once the headset is strapped on, though, you eventually forget it's even there. Or, at least, you stop caring.

Now though, you can actually get a simple virtual reality viewer yourself. The Samsung Gear VR is currently shipping, and only costs $99. It works with a Galaxy Note 5, Galaxy S6 edge+, S6, and S6 edge. The New York Times also recently shipped its own cardboard VR viewer — compatible with just about any phone — in conjunction with Google. It's not just vaporware — virtual reality is now in millions of homes across America.

VR headsets go beyond entertainment; I've tried demos where you're tasked with fixing an engine or designing a home. You can compare different scenarios in front of your eyes in real time or see future schematics projected onto the walls of a room, over the existing plumbing and supports and electrical wiring. This could completely revamp the DIY and home-improvement scene. And if you're away from your partner (or just want some fun), you can use VR to feel like you're actually with that person — in a very NSFW way.
New Yorkers who were able to attend Refinery29's 29Rooms event during Fashion Week (details here) could virtually enact something a little more PC: an immersive experience of our global Street Style content. It was like checking out a real-world catwalk.

Virtual reality is still in its infancy — it's nowhere near iPhone-level adoption, and it won't be for a very long time. However, you're going to start seeing it more, because it really does provide an amazing and valuable experience. Go ahead and give it a try; we promise you won't turn into a cyborg.
29Rooms — Refinery29’s magical art and fashion funhouse – is back for its second year, kicking off during NYFW, from September 9 to 11. We’re bringing our commitment to women claiming their power to life, through the event’s theme, “Powered by People.” To celebrate this sense of possibility, we’ve curated content that embodies our theme and pushes you to do more — start the conversations you want to hear, make change. We built our dream world and want to inspire you to power your own. For more information on the 29Rooms event and our initiative, click here.

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