There aren’t many things that will turn the heads of busy Londoners intent on grabbing their morning coffee fix. But it turns out someone sat in full VR-headset regalia in Starbucks is one.
For this is the unlikely setting myself and eLearning Studios’ John Fecci have chosen for my first VR taster. Which – when arranging the rendezvous over email – provides me with my first VR revelation (my first VRR, or VRevelation, my first… I’ll stop now).
It takes several (for Fecci probably quite maddening) emails back and forth for me to finally twig that, yes, he understands that I want to be an intrepid journalist and try the tech for myself; and that VR doesn’t require lots of expensive, specialist kit and wires… nor a special padded room.
So here I am in Starbucks, for the most part blissfully unaware of being gawped at due to, well, being well and truly immersed. Fecci specialises mainly in VR training (though he is increasingly seeing, and starting to cater for, demand on the assessment and recruitment side of things). So the first VR exercise I have a go at is fire-safety training.
The experience is instantly far more arresting and absorbing than I’d anticipated. Despite featuring computer-game-esque rather than life-like graphics (providers have to be careful not to trigger PTSD), I find to my surprise my heart rate quickening and stress levels rising.
Taking the right course of action in terms of triggering the alarm and calling 999 is as a result a confused, bumbling affair on my part; the power of VR in recreating high-stress scenarios, so that people are equipped to tackle them calmly in real life, becomes apparent.
Yet as I remove my headset after the one minute or so trial is up, dazed and slightly sheepish at my fire-safety ineptitude, I find Fecci staring at me incredulously. It turns out, despite being completely rubbish at computer games (indeed, technology in general), I am – I don’t think it’s too bold a statement to say – some kind of VR savant.
“It’s hard to describe without you seeing it, but when most people put a headset on it takes them a while to get used to it, and to get used to clicking the button [on the side of the headset]. But you were just straight off,” says Fecci, my ego ballooning by the second.
I continue to display an apparently unusually impressive VR prowess as I test a public speaking simulation, then a training exercise used by scaffolders, in which I – unsurprisingly – fail miserably to set up a gin wheel. Again I find my pulse quickening – this time due to the terrifying realism of the bright lights and hush of the auditorium, and then the sensation of being high up on a scaffolding rig.
Fecci tries excitedly to discover just what it is about me that makes me such a natch. The fact I play musical instruments? My love of immersing myself in a good book? The fact I’m a vivid dreamer? My general lack of curiosity about technical things? (My ego deflates slightly at this one.)
We come to no conclusions, with Fecci promising to let me know once he cracks what I and a handful of other VR naturals he’s met have in common. My conclusions from the trial though are clear: that VR is far more immersive and emotionally engaging than I had imagined, with clear potential for training, testing, recruitment and beyond.
And that the way to get people’s attention in London is to don a Star Trek-style headset in a coffee shop… and talk loudly about putting out a fire.
This piece featured in our recent Futureproofing versus present practicalities technology supplement. Read the full supplement here