Mind-Blowing -- My VR Fireside Chat in High fidelity

Two weeks ago, I gave my first virtual reality presentation -- a virtual fireside chat with my friend Philip Rosedale, the CEO of High Fidelity and creator of Second Life.

At the time, in conjunction with the event, my blog revisited a conversation I had with Philip about delocalized communities... and I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on my first experience with such a delocalized community.

In this blog, I’ll share my insights from this perspective-shifting VR presentation.

From the bare-essentials equipment setup, to a very sentimental surprise in the virtual world, to the moment when I returned to the real world, Philip and his team blew me away.

In short: OMG. What an extraordinary experience.

Let’s go back in time…

Entering High Fidelity

On my end, the setup in the back of the XPRIZE conference room was surprisingly minimalist: A few laptops, one large monitor showing the livestream of the event, lots of cables, two motion-tracking towers, and VR body tracking gear (a piece for my chest, a piece for each foot, two hand controllers, and an HTC Vive headset).

Entering the virtual world entailed sliding on my foot and chest trackers, gripping the hand controllers, and putting on the HTC Vive. All of this, plus calibration in the virtual world, took under 2 minutes.

The first moment when I put on my HTC Vive, I saw my buddy Philip standing right in front of me… a pleasant surprise.

It didn’t take long for me to feel like I was standing there with Philip having a conversation, just as we would in San Francisco.

I completely forgot that there were a dozen other people in the “real-world” room with me.

From my perspective, it was just me and Philip in this virtual “green room” having a conversation as he taught me how to move around and how to use my hand controllers.

The rest of the world simply disappeared.

A Virtual World Full of Surprises…

The first truly magical moment of the experience happened as Philip and I caught up in the green room. This fairly plain space appeared to be about 10 feet by 20 feet.

Philip pointed to a door at the end of the green room with his virtual avatar body and said:

“Listen, through that door and around that corner is our audience, and I have a surprise for you. I would love you to go poke your head out and check out the surprise, but please note that if you go through the door, you’ll be live onstage and everybody will be able to see you. Back here, they can’t see you.”

I used my controllers and navigated toward to the door. As I looked out the door, I first saw the audience at an angle.

I moved further into the door, looked out and there she was. A beautiful, giant, full-scale model of SpaceShipOne – the winning vehicle of the Ansari XPRIZE in 2004.

I expected seeing avatars just hanging out in chairs. To see a life-sized SpaceShipOne simply blew me away.

Looking out beyond SpaceShipOne, I realized we actually in a Scaled Composites hangar in the middle of the Mojave desert. Out the hangar doors I could see the runways and the mountains in the distance, with beautiful realism.

It brought back triumphant memories from 14 years ago.

Looking to my right, I saw a crowd of mixed alien avatars that looked like the cantina scene from the Star Wars universe.

The variety of avatar designs was extraordinary, ranging from robots and aliens to scantily clothed women and wooden figures. I felt the urge to step down among them and meet them -- and maybe give each of them a virtual hug. They floated in midair, sat on chairs, and stood by the stage, engaged in conversations with nearby avatars, transporting across the room in a blink of an eye.

Then I navigated to the front of the stage, and there was a large red dot on the floor.

I was back on the TED stage -- except this time, my buddy Philip was with me.

As I spoke to him, the audio was perfectly directional.

When I turned my head, I heard him in my left ear or my right ear, depending on how I oriented myself.

One of the things that hit me hard: I was talking to the audience, and occasionally, just for a moment, forgot the fact that I was in VR, and in a High Fidelity virtual world.

Then one of the audience members would fly up into the sky, instantly reminding me that I wasn’t in real life.

But the surprises went on…

At the start of the presentation, Philip said, “Hey Peter, we’ve got some slides for you.”

Then two gigantic virtual screens lowered from the ceiling above and behind me.

Next, magically, a confidence monitor popped up in front of me. I looked left, right and center, orienting myself just as I would at a speaking engagement.

Next I was onstage giving my keynote – business as usual!

I can see a future where I do this a lot… sparing me from hours of time wasted in airports and on airplanes away from my family.

Returning to Reality

As I mentioned, while the resolution was relatively low (we were using 2K VR glasses) – it was compelling enough that during the entire 75-minute session, I forgot about the outside world.

I forgot that some of my team — Greg, Esther, Max, and Claire — were standing 10 feet away from me, in the same room. I even saw Marissa’s avatar in the virtual audience, acknowledged her, and saw her wave back to me in real time, just as we would at a real-world event.

I truly felt as if I was there, fully immersed in that alternate universe.

Back in the green room I thanked my buddy Philip and gave him a “hug.”

While I couldn’t feel him, I experienced half of the sensation of the hug -- the visual of navigating my arm around his shoulder, and his arm coming around mine.

Surprisingly, even without haptics, this was a good representation of a hug. If we had enabled any kind of haptics, it would have completed the sensation in a profound fashion.

Then Philip said goodbye, and I began to hear voices in the physical room. The High Fidelity team said into my headphones, “Take off your Vive headset.”

Just like that, it was over. But the most shocking experience lay ahead.

Taking off that Vive headset and reentering the real world was dramatic, and perhaps somewhat traumatic. Probably the most shocking moment of the entire experience.

I abruptly went from a comfortable virtual world, back into the real world, staring at a bright green carpet in one of the XPRIZE conference rooms.

“Oh, hey guys, I forgot you were all here!” I said, looking at smiling faces of my team who had been no more than 2 meters away from me the entire time.

Concluding Thoughts

As a technology, VR still has a little way to go before it can fully replace the in-person experience.

Amazingly, Google and LG’s high-res VR display is nearly ready for future VR headsets. It’s an incredibly vibrant, 18-megapixel OLED display at 1443 ppi, with a 120Hz refresh rate contained on a 4.3-inch screen with a 120 x 96 field of view.

For reference, Google says the upper bounds of human vision exist at 9600 x 9000, 2,183 ppi, and 160 x 150-degree field of view — so it’s not too far off (compared to the HTC Vive, which has a smaller 3.6-inch 1080 x 1200 display with 448 pixels per inch).

As this compact, higher-resolution, and interactive VR comes online, I can see myself giving many more virtual keynotes, and perhaps even holding events in VR.

I’m excited about the current state of this technology, but its (near) future is even more compelling.

What would you share and create if you were able to be anywhere, anytime, without leaving your home or office?

We are on the verge of being able to transport ourselves anywhere virtually – to see anything, to experience anything, to do anything.

It’s an amazing time to be alive!

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