In the low-slung basement of the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco, Nonny De La Peña, a documentary filmmaker, was fitting a helmet and goggles onto a woman dressed in a skirt and sweater. De La Peña carefully arranged the long cables extending like an umbilical cord from the oversized goggle headset to a computer.
The woman removed her glasses, ready to plug in to a virtual reality re-creation of a crisis at a food bank line where supplies run out. As a result, a man waiting for food goes into a diabetic coma.
In real life, people at the Hyatt attending the Online News Association annual conference could see animated images on the screen as they walked by.
Behind the helmet and goggles, another experience played out, a virtual world created to immerse people into a nearly all-too-real scene.
De La Peña, a former Newsweek correspondent, wanted to make people feel the need behind hunger -- "What it's like for people when their last chance is gone."
The instinctive reaction to "Hunger in Los Angeles" is to reach out and help the man flailing on the ground or yell at the insensitive food bank worker.
People have pulled out their cellphones ready to dial 911.
"It's very visceral," De La Peña said.
Behind the seamless panorama playing out in the game was San Leandro-based studio, PhaseSpace, housed in a vast warehouse near Home Depot off Davis Street.
PhaseSpace specializes in the
PhaseSpace motion-capture technology has been used on everything from music videos by the Black Eyed Peas and Gnarls Barkley to the Navy's research lab to The Amazing Spiderman game.
"We're taking these things to the next generation," PhaseSpace CEO Tracy McSheery said. "The key is we're making them affordable."
And it is price combined with breakthroughs on nearly every front that make experts believe that immersive virtual technology is about to become mainstream.
"Sci-Fi and reality are overlapping," McSheery said.
The military is using virtual reality to treat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Architects can test floor plans. Directors can plot films. Wheelchair users can experience themselves mobile or learn to use a prosthetic leg.
When PhaseSpace accompanied De La Peña to the Sundance Film Festival last year, an American Indian woman approached them about using immersive virtual reality to teach young people about their culture.
"It's a wonderful congruence of technology, software and tools that will allow us to capture what would have been lost," McSheery said.
The important thing about virtual reality isn't that people see a dramatic 3-D panorama but that "you yourself change," Jaron Lanier, who coined the phrase virtual reality, said during a 2011 online interview. "You experience yourself in a different way than you ever have before."
That may be as a bird, a woman, a man, as anything imaginable.
Lanier is experimenting with using exotic avatars that allow students to become the object they are studying -- a molecule, DNA, triangles, animals.
The technology is already used with flight simulators, online dating, Nintendo Wii games and Microsoft Kinect, a motion-sensing device that frees people from the motion tracking body suits. The virtual community, Second World, has been around for nearly a decade.
Of course, predictions about making virtual reality part of everyday life have been around even longer than Second World.
But with the combination of cost, acceptance and technological breakthroughs, "I think we're just about there," said Jeremy Bailenson, who studies the psychological effects of virtual reality at Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab.
There is room for misuse: creating realities we want without homelessness, hunger or other economic and political realities. Games can be educational or violent. Politicians will be attracted to the technology to sway voters with outright deception. Accounting for misuse is important because, as Bailenson said, virtual reality affects our attitudes, how we behave and our cognition.
But the Internet, he said, is one step in the shift to an ever-more virtual world, which may be inevitable given how humans are wired. People already experience the world three dimensionally and know the virtual world is fake, but it feels real.
"Both sides of the brain light up," De La Peña said. "People jump all the time in movies."