In Ernest Cline's sci-fi novel-turned-corny-Spielberg-film Ready Player One, users don VR headsets and enter the Oasis, a massively multiplayer online simulation game (MMOG), to not just escape the harsh realities of the real world, but to do everything. People work, go to school, hang out in VR; they literally do everything but eat, shower, sleep, and take a dump.
Thanks to a software update coming to Facebook's Oculus Quest, a reality where we wear the VR headsets to work and entertain ourselves more than to play games is closer than ever before.
Multi-tasking in VR — The new "system experience" coming later this month will bring with it a redesigned user interface. Mainly, the UI update has been tweaked for easier access "to help you navigate to commonly-used system apps like Explore, Store, Browser, and TV more quickly, as well as access key settings like brightness and volume."
Annoyances like hopping out of an app to access the dashboard menu will be no more. Instead, you'll be able to access the new "universal menu" with overlays. Frequently used apps will also be displayed more prominently.
Triple-display setup (in the browser) —The biggest and, perhaps, most useful addition to the Quest is multi-window support in the Oculus web browser. Currently, you can only open one browser window a time. With the update, you'll be able to have three virtual windows display simultaneously like a triple-screen setup.
Oculus says the Browser will be the first Quest app to get multi-window support, but the Chats and Store apps will also gain it later.
Beta for now — The features are part of the Quest's "Experimental Features" which basically means it's a beta and not complete. There will likely be bugs and glitches if you choose to turn them on.
VR computing is happening — A handful of years ago, pretty much everyone joked about holing up at home and entering The Matrix through VR headsets. It seemed ridiculous anyone would ever choose to work or watch movies with friends and family in VR theaters instead of meeting up in person.
But with the coronavirus now a pandemic and more people worldwide forced to self-quarantine, that VR reality suddenly doesn't seem so dumb. In fact, it almost feels necessary as foreseeable events are canceled and we're asked by the CDC and governments to work remote to help flatten the COVID-19 curve. Sure, online collaboration apps like Slack and Trello and video conferencing services like Zoom and Skype are useful, but VR provides a sense of presence you just don't get through a screen. Presence — even if it's virtual — can instill the kind of empathy humanity desperately needs in these dire times.
Presence — even if it's virtual — can instill the kind of empathy humanity desperately needs in these dire times.
Most recently, I put on my Quest and to talk with RoadtoVR editor-in-chief Ben Lang, in Mozilla's Hubs. I was a robot and he was a panda. Our virtual avatars and the world we were chatting in were not photorealistic, but it freaked me out how much it felt like we were in the same room. My original plan for a 2-hour chat in VR turned into nearly 2.5 hours.
Additions like hand-tracking and more social experiences like Facebook's Horizon (in closed beta) will only propel us toward better virtual computing. It's terrible that a global health crisis could be the thing that convinces people that VR computing is A Thing for more than just VR enthusiasts. But with cabin fever setting in for many people, VR computing can offer not just something new, but also an escape as travel becomes restricted or impossible.
The momentum is picking up again for VR. If developers don't rally, they could miss this rare chance where VR can become more than a toy for nerds.