When it comes to my personal use of VR outside of work, you’re most likely to find me trying to perfect disappearing arrow mode on Beat Saber to try and overtake my brother’s high scores (cliché I know). But last year I was given the opportunity to introduce VR to a whole new audience. My TEDx talk gave me a chance to publicly reflect on the possibilities of what VR is capable of, and the transformative power of immersive technology.
For all of us championing VR in these early days, I think it’s important we revisit the questions that drive this tech forward: what and who is VR for and how will it change life as we know it?
Here’s the talk I gave:
There’s a lot of things I imagined myself doing at 28 years old.
When I was a kid, I was pretty confident I was going to grow up to be Xena the Warrior Princess. I had the outfit, thanks Dad. I clearly had the attitude, thanks Mum. And I had an overactive imagination that would allow me to run around the house for hours creating endless worlds and stories.
When I got the crushing news that you can’t actually be a fictional character, well I had to go back to the drawing board.
And if you’d asked me every 5 years from this point, what I thought I’d be doing at 28 years old, my answers would have changed drastically but never in my wildest dreams would I have said I’d be fulfilling someones dying wish & giving a TED talk about it.
Earlier this year, I got a phone call that went a bit like this…
“Alex, it’s Elaine from LOROS Hospice. I know you’re busy but there’s a patient here at the hospice – Mary – She…. She doesn’t have much time left. She would really love to go to the beach one last time…. and at this point, you’re the only one who can make that happen.”
Sure enough about 2 hours after getting this phone call, me and lovely old Mary are sitting on the beach in the Gower Peninsular. It’s a gorgeous summer day. There’s hardly anyone around so all we can hear is the shallow waves lapping on the sand and the occasional bird flying over head. I look over at her and she’s smiling. She doesn’t look like she’s in pain, she doesn’t look like someone who’s about to die….she just looks… happy. And it kind of hit me all at once that I’m watching Mary fulfill her dying wish. I’m the one helping her fulfill her dying wish.
And the best part about this whole thing? Mary didn’t even leave her hospice bed. Because this trip to the beach was entirely virtual.
See I’m a virtual reality filmmaker and a year prior to this, I had gone to that beach on an amazing summers day and made a film for the hospice.
So when I got the call from Elaine that day, Mary had asked that I bring the VR headsets in and take her on a virtual field trip so that instead of spending her final hours surrounded by hospital equipment, she was surrounded by the ocean that she loved, reliving some of the happiest memories of her life.
That is what technology is for. That is what Virtual Reality is for.
For those of you looking a bit confused right now, VR in technical terms, is this small box like computer you strap to your face… which doesn’t sound too appealing… but the beauty of this box is once you turn it on, it allows you to do anything. Be anywhere. You could step back in time, you could speed into the future.
It literally makes the impossible, possible.
When I put a VR headset on for the first time it blew my mind. I stepped inside the world of Cirque Du Solei and I remember one of the performers got a bit too close, so I tried to lean out of the way. I started laughing out loud because I suddenly realised, that person wasn’t actually there… but it felt so real that my brain had reacted as if it were.
From that day on I was obsessed with this technology and taught myself everything about creating films for it. Finally, I could put my overactive imagination to good use. A technology that would literally let me build worlds and stories just like when I was a kid.
Only this time, instead of just me being able to live inside these worlds… other people could too. And the first people I brought into my VR worlds were my family.
For as long as I can remember, my grandma would go dancing 5 times a week. Not hitting the club kind of dancing, I’m talking traditional ballroom, partner-up look-elegant style dancing. When I was younger she even taught me how to Waltz.
But age crept in and after a couple of pretty bad falls, my grandma was sentenced to live the last 10 years of her life not being able to do the thing she loved the most. Instead of dancing the jive every other day, she was confined to her bedroom to watch reruns of countdown.
Don’t get me wrong, she loved Countdown but seeing her like that made me understand for the first time that your body… the instrument that allows you to explore and discover the world… could overnight, become a prison.
That was until I put her in VR. All of a sudden, she didn’t need her hips from 30 years ago. She was swaying, dancing and waltzing all without taking a single step. Not only did she get to rekindle her love of her favourite pastime but it also made real for her, so many memories that had faded over the years.
This was the first time since discovering VR I realised…
This is what technology is for. This is what VR is for.
A couple of years later, my older brother got married. It was such an amazing day but my grandma was too unwell at this point, to be there for it.
So I filmed it in VR and a few days later, she was able to sit by my side in the marquee. Watching my brother hold it together while he said I do… turning to see me and my Mum not so successful fighting back tears. Me and my younger brother were his best men… and thanks to VR, my grandma could be there laughing along with the rest of our family and friends as we rapped our best mens speech.
You see, as much as VR is about creating new experiences, it’s also about immortalising memories for the future.
A year later, my nephew Ollie was born. Now, the only screen he’s currently interested in is the one that allows him to watch his favourite show- Hey Duggee. But how incredible is it that when he’s older, this technology will allow him to step into back in time and actually be at his mum & dad’s wedding. A day he wasn’t even alive for.
What if this technology had existed when I was younger? What if on the anniversary of my Grandma’s death, I could relive the memory of learning how to Waltz in her living room? What if even decades after passing away, my grandma could teach my nephew how to waltz in her living room?
We’re not just immortalising memories… we’re immortalising people.
But I’m getting ahead of myself… we’re currently so early on in this technology – I’m talking the Windows 95 version…. If that.
But in the 4 years I’ve been working with VR, I’ve seen it’s power to provide pain-relief. To provide hope. To provide happiness. And that’s just my experience…
There are incredible people worldwide working on amazing projects for dementia patients, burn victims, PTSD… and this is just the beginning…
We’re on the cusp of realising technologies true potential and I genuinely believe that virtual reality will transform and enhance the human experience so that we can all live beyond the limitations of the life we’ve been given.
So when my nephew grows up, I won’t ask him what he thinks he’ll be doing at 28 years old. Because I’ll know, thanks to this technology he can do anything…
Afterall, isn’t that what technology is for. I believe that is what virtual reality is for.
Alex Rühl (The Drum’s 50 under 30 women in digital, Women of the Future Awards, Pioneers of Immersive Realities Award) is a virtual reality creator, international speaker and founder of immersive storytelling studio CATS are not PEAS.