The field of Virtual Reality, which is so rapidly growing and changing, is almost impossible for professionals to keep abreast of, let alone someone new to the scene. However, a number of listeners have told me that the Voices of VR podcast was their introduction and prime source of learning material for getting into VR. Inspired by this, I’ve created a top ten list of the episodes I think would be most helpful for someone getting into the field.

Because this technology potentially serves so many different industries spanning the health industry, the entertainment industry, the gaming industry, the army and even NASA, it’s not always possible for people in one area to be aware of what’s going on in another. Truthfully, there aren’t that many people covering all the facets of the field or the ways in which they potentially connect.

But after interviewing over 350 people across the field and publishing 300 of those interviews I’ve identified some key areas of research and development I believe are foundational points for anyone passionate about this subject matter. So this list is designed to share with people as succinctly as possible the basic scope of the field as it exists today.

What follows are the episodes which either gave me a key insight about a VR design principle, or were the source of a discovery about what’s even possible with VR.

TOP 10 VOICES OF VR PODCASTS TO GET YOU STARTED IN VR
1.) Richard Skarbez on the two components of presence. This is the best explanation about what the academic world has discovered about cultivating presence in VR with “immersion” and “coherence.” Skarbez says that the uncanny valley is n-dimensional, which should radically affect VR design decisions in order to match the level of fidelity across aspects of an experience ranging from graphics to sound effects to music to haptics.

2.) Paul Bettner on the sweet spot of VR. Having objects near to your face are super compelling in VR because it maximizes the stereoscopic effects and you have more neurons in your brain to process information that’s about an arms-length away from your face. This informed every decision about how they created Bettner’s groundbreaking game Lucky’s Tale, and it was one of the first experiences that convinced people that a third-person perspective would not only work but provide a viable solution to comfortable VR locomotion.

3.) James Blaha on curing his lazy eye with VR. James’ company Vivid Vision is still going through the medical research to be able to make this claim more definitively, but James created a game in VR so that he could see in 3D for the first time. And not only that, but after playing for 20 hours over 3 weeks he rewired his brain so that he could see in 3D in real life all the time. Combining neuroplasticity theory with VR’s ability to control our perceptual inputs might unlock all sorts of latent human potential that we don’t even know about yet. This was one of the most surprising and inspiring moments that I’ve had during an interview yet.

4.) Mel Slater on virtual body ownership and the time travel illusion. Mel Slater is a leading researcher into presence, and he deftly explains the place and plausibility illusions. But he also talks about the virtual body ownership illusion and how that can result in a time travel illusion that he’s researched and personally experienced. What did it feel like? He couldn’t explain. It’s an illusion. It feels like what it might feel like to be a time traveler. This type of research has a lot implications for self-awareness, memory, and asking fundamental questions about our identity and sense of self.

5.) Tom Furness on 50 years in VR. Tom has been doing VR continuously longer than anyone on the planet, and is a wealth of knowledge about what’s possible. Working for the Air Force, he also invented the virtual retinal display technology in the 90′s, and it’s his expired patent that Magic Leap used to start their digital lightfield display-driven HMD. This technology shoots photons directly into your eyes, and it can allow some blind people to see for the first time. Tom claims that virtual worlds can help us appreciate what’s possible in reality that’s not possible in VR, and therefore live fuller lives.

6.) Nonny de la Peña on pioneering uses of empathy in VR. Nonny is a filmmaking pioneer in using VR to invoke feelings of empathy, and I dive into her long history of how she’s used VR for empathy in my first interview with her at SVVRCon in May 2014. Many people have cited empathy to me as being one of the most powerful applications of VR, and no one is better versed, or with more original insights into this subject matter than Nonny.

7.) Devon Dolan on the Four different types of stories in VR. Devon & his collaborator Michael Parets come from the world of film, but they came up with a really insightful and helpful framework to describe the four different types of stories in VR. Whether you’re a ghost or a character, and whether you have impact on the story or not. Talking about this quadrant system of four different types of stories helped me to better understand how passive VR films could be contextualized within fully interactive VR experiences where you can have control over the story in both small and big ways. We’re both doing a lot of active learning in this episode.

8.) Rob Morgan on Narrative Design for VR. Rob is a writer who worked on a number of full-length VR experiences for nDreams, and he had some key insights about the special considerations that VR has that don’t exist in 2D mediums. In particular, it was striking to me to hear how NPCs needed to exhibit life-like social behaviors like body language and eye contact in order to be more plausible and not break presence.

9.) VR is protected free speech. Mike Gallagher of the Entertainment Software Association makes a strong argument that just like video games, VR is a communication medium that’s protected as free speech by the Constitution. While it’s true the ESA won a Supreme Court case that established this precedent, I don’t think it will stop the public or politicians from trying to restrict and control what’s created. I think that we will have ask if VR is different from other mediums. Will the radical first person experience push past the boundaries of other more established mediums? It’s one thing to watch a violence depicted on a 2D screen within a video game, but we experience similar content differently when immersed within a first-person perspective. It’s unknown as to whether VR has the potential to cause or trigger PTSD more severely than other mediums, and what types of battles will ensue over this. Ratings will be one self-policing mechanism, but will there be political and legal battles over this? As history has shown, there’s always been resistance and backlash to new communications mediums that enable more immersive artistic expressions. This interview is great primer for how the legal precedents protect the free speech rights of content creators, and gives a sneak peak for how the violence in VR video games may get a lot more heated over the next year.

10.) AI and the future of interactive drama. Andrew Stern understands the future of interactive storytelling more than anyone else I’ve talked to so far. There were 2000 dialog pairs in his interactive game Facade, but you’d only experience about 20% of them on a given run. It’s a dynamically generated narrative with both local and global agency, and it still has an interesting dramatic arc. Andrew collaborated with his Facade collaborator Michael Mateas as well as with Larry LeBron on a $37 million DARPA grant to teach de-escalation skills to soldiers using Kinect-based gestural controls and dynamic AI characters. And now they’re taking a lot of these lessons and creating Unity tools to make it easier to build interactive drams. They are visionaries in this space and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with AI and interactive narratives.

Let me know if you have any personal favorites by tweeting me @kentbye, and I’ll be compiling more lists of my favorites in the future.