What Is VR?

I disagree with many people on this, but that also puts me in good company. Many of the brightest minds out there also disagree with many of the other brightest minds out there.

One blogger and VR-creator whom I admire greatly likes to use the hashtag #VRisthepaintingnotthebrush a lot lately. But here’s the funny thing: she uses that to defend the idea that SecondLife IS VR, even if you don’t experience it via an HMD 3D headset such as Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. Well, yes, I agree with her on that particular point. Except, that an HMD is not a “brush” in that metaphor. Rather, it is merely the glass through which one peers to see the “painting” you’re not allowed to touch.

Then, in the next breath, she tells me…

VR = computer-generated simulation of a 3D environment that can be interacted with.

That’s one of the many definitions with which I do not completely agree. That is one example of VR, but there are more “brushes” than just CG, if we are to extend that same metaphor. More to the point, I believe that definition to be too narrow. Here’s why…

My 1st VR Experience

I do not recall how old I was, or where we were. Science Museum of Chicago? DisneyLand? Anyway, I was a kid, and we walked into a round room that was essentially a cylindrical movie theater with no seats. There were hand rails, and I was able to see above and hold the hand rails as readily as my 5’2″ mother – so I was probably around 12, give or take. The movie was 360-degree panoramic, probably in 7 or 8 sections. We could look in any direction, though the view top-to-bottom was restricted similar to any other movie. Or, for that matter, similar to riding in a car where the windows allow you view in any horizontal direction to the outside world, but looking UP or DOWN doesn’t allow you to see very far.

The movie included clips of Grand Prix racing, helicopter flying, downhill skiing, white-water rafting, and who-knows-what-else. I remember there being a particular scene during which for whatever reason (likely my natural curiosity about how stuff works) I wasn’t watching the screens at all. I was watching the viewers. And I watched as all of them leaned in unison to one side, all of them white-knuckling the handrails. One person fell over – clearly hadn’t taken the warnings to heart as to why there were handrails.

Even though they didn’t call it VR, I say that was Virtual Reality – because of two things:

  1. An entire room full of people were convinced they needed to lean into the turn. They felt like they were really there (the “Reality” part).
  2. They weren’t in fact really there (the “Virtual” part).

Can Be Interacted With

…is part of one definition of VR that I see from more than one source. Well if that’s the case (not sure if I’ll ever concede that point, but for the sake of argument, OK), then just how much interaction is enough interaction?

If I’m in a VR museum, or an ancient tomb, or some other notable place that has been photographed from a bazillion angles and stitched together such that I can walk around in it and look more closely at one thing, then another, and it feels like I’m there, isn’t that the same level of interaction I would have with art at the Louvre? I can’t touch the paintings. I can’t feel the walls of an ancient tomb. It’s not allowed. Nor is it possible if I’m actually standing in my basement wearing an HMD.

They like to say that “interaction” means I can move or change it. I disagree. I don’t care if I get to use the brush, or my interaction is rather as a passive observer. I care about whether it seems real, and my interaction is similar to how my real-world interaction would be, and it seems like I’m there, although I’m not.


…is part of one definition of VR that I see from more than one source. Well if that’s the case (not sure if I’ll ever concede that point, but for the sake of argument, OK), then just how much computer involvement is enough?

When they take a bunch of pictures and stitch them together, they’re not stitched together by a seamstress. Nor are they presented as prints. A computer is delivering the 360×360 content, likely through an HMD, but certainly via a computer. So a computer was needed to make it, AND present it.

Many “experts” like to say that if the source of what you’re seeing is an array of cameras, that doesn’t count as VR. I disagree. I don’t care about which “brush” was used. I care about whether it looks real, and seems like I’m there, although I’m not.

Undies In A Twist

Therefore, I shall not get my undies in a twist if someone markets a 360-spherical video (that isn’t even 3D) as a VR experience. They can call it that if they want. It’s not as compelling (or immersive) as some other VR experiences I’ve had. But that’s the end of my criticism of misuse of the VR term with stuff like that. After all, if the roller coaster makes some viewers scream, and others sick, just how Virtually Real does it need to be in order to qualify as Virtual Reality?