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Finding a future for the immersive potential of virtual reality

This photo taken on May 11, 2016 shows visitors trying wearable virtual reality devices during the first day of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Asia in Shanghai.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

The potential for virtual reality technology to change everything from how people experience their entertainment to how they consume their news is only going to be realized when consumers actually get their hands on it.

Eric Hine, executive producer at Vancouver virtual reality company Archiact Interactive, says that remains a long way off. But this weekend, anyone who is curious about the technology can get a glimpse, as Vancouver hosts one of the first international consumer-focused conferences.

"Up to this point, VR has been behind closed doors or in the hands of developers … but the public doesn't actually have a chance to play anything. Until we get the public to play these things, we will never have a market to sell this stuff," Mr. Hine said.

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The Consumer Virtual Reality Conference and Exhibition, which takes place on Saturday at the Vancouver Convention Centre, will market virtual reality equipment and games to customers. The sold-out conference is set to host 2,100 people as developers show off VR games and journalists reveal what stories can be told with virtual reality technology.

The University of British Columbia journalism school's work will be featured to demonstrate the power of the new medium. Students worked with VICE News on a story about HIV and migration in Chile.

"I think it will be a tool for journalism," UBC journalism professor Taylor Owen said. "The degree to which major technology companies are investing in this space indicates that it's going to be a major technology."

The medium has the potential to bring audiences into situations they might not otherwise experience, he noted. But it is also a new frontier for journalists, raising new ethical questions.

"With other forms of journalism, the act of representation is transparent," Mr. Owen noted. "In VR, it's a little different. You are trying to trick the user into thinking they're there. You are trying to immerse them in a place they otherwise wouldn't be able to experience. That presents a whole bunch of ethical considerations because these scenes are highly constructed."

Mr. Owen's research is focused on whether the medium prompts a greater sense of empathy among users than journalism found on other platforms. He's also studying whether users retain the information they learn with a VR experience.

While others disagree, Mr. Hine maintains that the immersive experience allows users to feel more when they interact with the medium. "Anyone I throw into some of the experiences will immediately have an emotional reaction," he said.

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He noted that when video-game designer Joseph Delgado modified Grand Theft Auto V for virtual reality, he was horrified by the crime and violence in the game.

"I feel horrible about making this," Mr. Delgado said on his video post on Tumblr. "You actually feel guilty. My mouth dropped the first time I shot someone in my GTA:V VR setup."

While the conference will demonstrate what is possible in virtual storytelling, the technology still faces many hurdles before it is widely accepted. Virtual reality is much tougher to develop. Viewing material in VR requires two screens. For mobile phones, this involves splitting the phone screen in half, meaning the device is running twice as much 3D content.

"The performance on these things is very tedious for any of these devices," Mr. Hine said.

Virtual reality devices aren't cheap, either. While Google Cardboard, a cardboard headset designed for mobile devices, costs about $15, higher-end equipment such as the Oculus Rift or the PS4's virtual reality headset is priced from $550 to $600 (U.S.). And they aren't even the most expensive products on the market. HTC's Vive is one of the highest-priced headsets at $800.

The market for virtual reality is predicted to reach from $70-billion to $150-billion by 2020.

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