Everything you need to know about Toronto’s booming VR scene
Virtual and augmented reality are making it possible to experience pretty much anything and everything imaginable. Our guide to the biggest trend in tech
What is virtual reality, anyway?
Helen Papagiannis, author of the forthcoming book Augmented Human, has studied virtual technology for over a decade. We asked her to explain the appeal
What’s the difference between augmented reality and virtual reality?
Both technologies ultimately share the same goal: to immerse the viewer in an experience. Virtual reality makes you feel like you’re in a wholly imaginary space. Maybe it seems like you’re fully present and riding a roller coaster, but it’s entirely virtual. With augmented reality, there is, ideally, the sense that the virtual content is really there in your physical space. It would be like looking at a virtual dragon and believing that, yes, that’s actually right there on the kitchen table. So, with VR, we leave our physical world behind and enter a completely computer-generated environment. With AR, we are still in our physical surroundings, but with supplementary virtual content that enters our space.
You’ve said before that augmented reality is already here. Can you give us an example?
It’s true—we’re starting to use augmented reality every day. Snapchat’s filters are a great example. Because the behaviours involved are already familiar, it’s a near-seamless augmentation—we’re used to the front-facing camera, we know how to take selfies, and we know how to look at ourselves in a mirror. With Snapchat filters, we can look at ourselves with this digital content laid overtop of our faces, like the little puppy ears and nose or a sparkly flower crown. We’re augmenting ourselves!
Are AR and VR only visual?
They’re going beyond the visual. There’s a device that I often reference—the OrCam. It’s a pair of glasses that enable the visually impaired to see. It works with a camera that the wearer can point toward content, which is then read back to the wearer as an auditory augmentation. So a visually impaired person is now able, for example, to read a menu at a restaurant. Developers are also working on virtual touch. I had the pleasure of visiting a lab at the University of South Australia, where I was able to touch a virtual fish. I could feel its scales, and, honestly, it blew my mind. I was able to physically feel something that wasn’t really there.
What does the future hold for VR and AR?
I often compare augmented reality to the emergence of cinema. At first, people marvelled at the technology and content was secondary. We’re still in the early days of augmented reality, still defining the conventions, and it’s wide open right now. There are so many opportunities for AR to be built into our daily lives. It’s an excellent time right now for storytellers, engineers and artists to develop ways to use this technology. I’m excited to see how these tools can expand our human capacity and change our lives.
How do you play?
Three ways to give VR a go
The Waterloo VR arcade has a growing library of 20 games—virtual minigolf, anyone?—all of which can be played for a mere $25 an hour. ctrlv.ca.
Globacore’s fun spin on the classic 1984 Atari game trades in the hand-held controller for a VR headset, stationary bike and motion trackers. globacore.com.
How should a self-driving car handle life-and-death decisions? The NFB’s Cardboard Crash puts you in the virtual driver’s seat. cardboardcrash.nfb.ca.
What do you need?
VR headsets range from $20 (with some assembly required) to $1,500 wearable computers. Here, one for every budget
Stick your smartphone in the cardboard enclosure and you’re pretty much good to go. Google’s cardboard headset is the simplest way to get a basic VR experience. $20. store.google.com.
Sony’s PS4 headset works in tandem with the console and two wireless controllers for a very realistic gaming experience. $550 for the headset; $700 with a controller. bestbuy.ca.
The long-awaited Oculus Rift launched just this year. Aimed primarily at high-end gamers with powerful computers, it has a sensor that can track the user’s movements within a few feet. $850. bestbuy.ca.
HTC’s set has a gesture-sensing controller for each hand, plus a pair of finely calibrated sensors that can pinpoint your location in a room up to 15 by 15 feet—perfect for motion gaming. $1,150. microsoftstore.com.
Who’s making VR?
A look behind the scenes (and screens) at the Toronto companies creating fantastical digital environments
This company specializes in 3-D scanning real humans and inserting them into virtual worlds. Co-founder Morgan Young explains that by surrounding an actor with 112 cameras all firing in unison, they can create “a very, very realistic, incredibly lifelike 3-D model that’s accurate down to the pore level of detail.”
The five-person team at Josh Maldonado’s Discovr Labs has been working with doctors at SickKids and Sunnybrook on MedSims, a series of clinical VR simulations to train nurses and doctors in highly immersive—and therefore extremely lifelike—situations. “Simulating the actual stress,” says Maldonado, “makes it more real.”
YouTube Space Toronto
Toronto’s YouTube stars with more than 10,000 channel subscribers get a nice perk: access to equipment, workshops and studio space. Google also offers them the technology to create videos viewable in virtual reality—like tech vlogger Lewis Hilsenteger’s 360-degree video of the CN Tower EdgeWalk.
How’d we get here?
A brief history of virtual reality
1968 Computer scientist Ivan Sutherland creates the first head-mounted 3-D display, called the Sword of Damocles for how the apparatus is suspended overhead.
1985 The so-called father of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier, co-founds VPL Research, a lab for developing tools to bring VR to the masses.
1989 Mattel releases the Power Glove a wearable accessory for the Nintendo Entertainment System game console, based on VPL’s research.
1992 Pierce Brosnan stars in The Lawnmower Man. The thriller’s plot involves experiments with VR—introducing the technology to the moviegoing public.
1995 Nintendo debuts the fantastically unsuccessful Virtual Boy, a lo-fi 3-D console with LED displays inside a primitive headset.
2000 The dot-com bubble bursts. There are no resources to advance the technology fast enough for virtual reality to live up to the hype
2012 Palmer Luckey announces the Oculus Rift, a high-end virtual reality headset made with cutting-edge technology that reignites a dormant market.