Missing the point and potential of virtual reality

Deep in thought...

Perhaps you were expecting me to write about the recent noisefest that surrounds the confirmation of Linden Lab’s ongoing work for a next-generation virtual world (let’s call it SL 2.0 and be done with it). Truth be told, I was tempted to do so, but decided to resist. After all, Inara Pey has been doing a great job covering the whole issue, and Nalates Urriah pushed out an extremely poignant post on the subject. Today’s topic is different. It has to do with pompously-announced, ambitious virtual reality projects that miss the point and potential of virtual reality completely.

By way of some of my RL friends, I was pointed to an announcement that was made last year (two articles – in Greek – on it are here and here) and concerned a virtual reality project aiming to promote two landmarks of Thessaly, Greece: the monasteries of Meteora, and the part of Mount Olympus that belongs to the region of Thessaly. So far, so good. Virtual reality can be a fantastic way to showcase areas of cultural, natural and historical importance. One such example is the Lisbon pre-1755 earthquake project, which you can see in the video presented below:

You can look around, walk around, follow a pre-specified, pre-scripted guided tour, or wander aimlessly following an arbitrary route of your own choosing, take in the sounds and sights, read and hear narrations and descriptions, marvel at the architecture or natural beauty, even take gorgeous snapshots to share with your friends; and all this from the comfort of your own home, at your own pace, any time you want, over the internet. Virtual reality can be a magnificent tool for distant learning, and a great teaser for a potential visitor. Add support for total immersion devices like the Oculus Rift, along with well-written and spoken narrations and descriptions and interactive props, and the “wow” factor goes straight to 11.

Panorama of the Meteora. Source: Wikipedia

Panorama of the Meteora. Source: Wikipedia

So, in June 2013, it was announced that the Region of Thessaly was planning to embark on an €800,000 project which would see the construction and set-up of two “digital planetariums” whose job would be to provide virtual reality demonstrations of the Meteora and Olympus, allowing virtual explorers to access even the most difficult to reach part of Olympus and see even the finest details of the Meteora monasteries. But… Digital planetariums, you say?

Well, yes. The plan was to make two well-equipped computer rooms, one in Kalabaka, which is at the foot of the Meteora rocks, and one in Elassona, which is at the foot of Olympus. And here’s where an important question needs to be asked: Why would I want to have a virtual experience of something when I’m very close to the real thing and can walk or drive to it very easily?

Indeed, digital media presentations, whether they are videos using pre-rendered 3D graphics, or machinima, or whatever other format you might want to use, are meant to be used as a teaser, as an advertisement of sorts: “this is what you’ll see if you come here.”

Furthermore, the term “digital planetarium” is downright wrong and used in a context it doesn’t really belong to. You see, a planetarium is a facility whose purpose is to educate spectators, in an entertaining and captivating manner, about astronomy, the night sky and even celestial navigation.

Now, to be honest, it is my understanding that, one year after the announcements were made in Greek media, nothing has been done so far for various reasons. Personally, I think this is for the better. Hopefully someone will explain to the powers that be that they can leverage the capabilities of Second Life and OpenSim, along with the expertise and talents of both local personnel and professional content creators who provide 3D decor for Second Life and OpenSim, in order to not only do what they intend to do, but also make it plausible, useful and much cheaper for the crisis-stricken country. But will someone step up to the plate?


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