Seeing really is believing

Rikard Steiber, a Swedish tech guru based in California, aims to turn the world on to the possibilities of virtual reality – and spark an educational revolution in the process.


We travel to California to meet a pioneer behind the new era of virtual reality

“With the latest VR you can now achieve ‘presence’,” says Rikard Steiber, president of Viveport, the virtual reality app store. “This means that when your visual, auditory and motor systems are immersed, your brain actually thinks you’re ‘there’. When you’re standing on a beach in VR, and you hear and see the waves, the brain thinks it’s probably the real thing – even though you know you’re in your living room.”

For something that feels so modern, virtual reality has actually been around for a surprisingly long time. Even as early as the 1990s companies like Sega and Nintendo were trying to sell them as gaming devices – but the sets were expensive and clunky, and the experience rarely lived up to the promise of the hype.

Back then, VR was an idea before its time. Today, the technology has caught up with the philosophy. Since the launch of the Oculus Rift headset in 2016, the immersive possibilities of VR have become ever more apparent. And one of the key people in turning the dream of mass VR participation into reality happens to be Rikard.

Behind the wheel of an XC90, we leave San Francisco and head south to meet Rikard at the company’s offices in Silicon Valley. He explains what his company does. “The idea is you’re probably going to access VR and AR [augmented reality] across multiple platforms and devices,” says Rikard. “So we want this to be the one place where the consumer goes to find these experiences.”

‘Experiences’ is the key word here. With devices like the Rift and HTC’s Vive (hence ‘Viveport’), virtual reality has the chance to offer a new way of playing, learning and exploring, though sometimes it’s hard to define it without trying it.

Like thousands of forward-thinking workers from around the globe, Rikard finds California the perfect base to achieve his ambitions. And plenty of those workers includes his fellow Swedes. “Swedes love technology and what you can do with it – that’s why they fit really well in California,” he says. “Here, you have people from all countries, all religions, all races coming together – they share a common purpose to change the world. And I think that’s something we will increasingly do more of in Sweden. To think more globally.”

Steiber has been involved in tech for years, originally working in London before moving to California in 2009 to head up Google’s marketing team. He speaks English with a slight Californian accent and is bringing up his children on the US west coast. And this gives him extra perspective on how VR can add an extra element to education, not just make computer games more fun.

“I have two young girls, so if they’re studying the dinosaur age they can walk around Jurassic Park and see a stegosaurus eating plants or hear the roar of a T-Rex. That only takes 20 seconds to experience, but then the kid will know how big the dinosaurs are, what they eat, what they’re afraid of. They’ll never forget it and will come back for more. That won’t happen with a textbook."

“Here, you have people from all countries, all religions, all races coming together – they share a common purpose to change the world. And I think that’s something we will increasingly do more of in Sweden. To think more globally”

Current mobile VR devices work by connecting the wearer to a computer, with headphones tracking you in a 3D space so the sound matches the vision. In more high-end systems, users can actually walk around and interact with objects through a process called ‘haptic feedback’, something that’s demonstrated perfectly in a Robin Hood app that Rikard shows us.

“When you take an arrow and you draw the bow,” says Rikard, “it actually vibrates so that you feel the resistance. There is no actual resistance but your brain fills in the gap.”

This opens up possibilities that range from looking around a house you want to buy to finding new worlds to explore – Vive is launching the world’s first VR satellite later in the year so we can experience space on earth. “Let’s take the example of my girls again,” says Rikard. “They’d love to go underwater, meet a whale or go to the moon. Before, these were things that only Jacques Cousteau or Neil Armstrong could do – but now everyone can. There are no limitations.”

Rikard has long been fascinated by space, having tried to buy a spacecraft from Richard Branson with the aim of launching from Spaceport in northern Sweden in 2014. He’s also been in training for the ride he’s booked with Virgin Galactic. “I’ve been doing zero-g training,” he says. “They have a big aeroplane and empty it of everything inside. They go up and then they drop down and speed up so that you become weightless. You do that 15 times – it’s super-fun! You’re completely helpless because your body thinks it’s in water and you can swim but you can’t. There’s no friction so you have no control.”

Away from space, back on his adopted home turf, Rikard is every inch the optimistic Californian, always thinking about how we can use technology to further humankind. Yet despite this, Rikard represents the best of modern Swedish culture: enthusiastic, outward looking and never satisfied with the status quo.

He’s going to go a long way – and if we’ve got any sense, we’ll be going with him, headsets at the ready.