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Take A Peek Under The Helmet Of Virtual Reality At SXSW


One thing we didn't expect to see here at South by Southwest were the virtual reality helmets. They were everywhere.

KATIE SEALICK: You're a dinosaur, and you're protecting your village from cavemen. And the faster you move, the faster you get to reload your ammo.

MARTIN: That's Katie Sealick from the company Blue Goji. They use VR games on fitness equipment to make working out a little more fun. A few booths down at the convention center, NASA was sending people on space missions. Edward Kim took a trip.

EDWARD KIM: It was kind of my dream to be an astronaut. It felt like I was right there, right next to the spaceship.

MARTIN: We wanted to know what the virtual reality hype was all about, so we called Todd Richmond. He's the director of advanced prototypes at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies. He spoke on a panel at South by Southwest on the promise and the dangers of VR. And I started by asking him to give us the basics on virtual reality.

TODD RICHMOND: Right now, you're seeing mostly gaming. Actually, VR has been around - this is sort of the third coming. It started in the mid-'80s, and then they made a resurgence in the '90s. And really, what's happened now is that the disruption has been around price. So now instead of paying $50,000 for a head-mount display, you can get one for under 1,000 or even 100 if you get something like a Cardboard or Samsung Gear. And it really is putting yourself into an environment that someone else has created, whether it's through 360 video or through a game engine. It's really about seeding one or more of your senses to someone else's synthetic environment. And right now you're seeing mostly gaming applications. You're not seeing it in other industries. But you will. It's coming.

MARTIN: You know, it seems like a big deal here. But how does this compare with the reality of where this technology is outside of the bubble we are now in at the moment?

RICHMOND: VR will touch every aspect of life. And Skip Rizzo, in our lab, has been using virtual reality in clinical settings to help treat post-traumatic stress in returning veterans. So that's just one example in health care. You're starting to see experiments in architecture. Basically, anything that has a spatial component in the commercial sector will be touched by virtual reality. And education is another huge area.

MARTIN: Well, we can certainly understand - and you've already hinted at some of the, you know, socially constructive opportunities here - but could you talk to us about some of the downside here? You also talked about the fact that there is a danger here. Could you talk a little bit about that?

RICHMOND: As you said, there are great uses for this technology for healing people and educating people. But technology is agnostic. It's really about what we do with it. So what we're worried about is it's a very different relationship that the human has with the information and the experience, in part because you have a sense of embodiment. And that's something that doesn't happen when information is based on a screen. And so we really don't have a good sense for what happens when humans become immersed and start to embody themselves in these other sort of synthetic environments.

And we don't know at what age children really should be subjected to this sort of thing. I mean, we were worried about kids and television and kids and computer games. But again, immersive, in this whole sense of embodiment, is really different. So what we're trying to do is engage in a dialogue and have the people who are creating the technology at least be thoughtful about the possible implications and not just say, oh well, we'll leave it up to society to sort it out. No, I think the onus is actually on those of us who are in the industry to be thoughtful as we move forward.

MARTIN: That's Todd Richman. He's the director of advanced prototypes at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies. And he was kind enough to speak to us from Santa Monica. Professor Richmond, thanks so much for speaking with us. I hope we'll talk again.

RICHMOND: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF VALERIE JUNE SONG, "SHAKE DOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered,where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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