You’re standing on the deck of an underwater shipwreck watching manta rays swim by when suddenly you find yourself staring eye-to-eye with a massive, 80-foot blue whale.

The sheer size of the creature, suspended in motion just an arm’s length away, creates a palpable feeling of tension. If you’re nervous, you can take a step back. If you’re feeling brave, you can walk forward for a closer look.

After a few moments, the whale turns and begins to swim away, its enormous tail nearly striking the wreckage.

And with that, the demo is over.

It’s been said the immersive power of virtual reality has to be experienced first-hand, and the opportunity to do just that drew thousands of people to a sold-out event showcasing the emerging technology at the Vancouver Convention Centre Saturday.

The Consumer Virtual Reality convention, put on by local VR company Archiact Interactive, showed off a surprising array of uses for the various headsets currently on the market, from the lower-end Samsung Gear to the state-of-the-art Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

HTC's whale experience, dubbed "TheBlu: Encounter," was just one of dozens of demonstrations on offer, which ranged from games to educational apps to simulations. One gave users a chance to try guided meditation in several different relaxing virtual locations.

“I chose to go to the arctic,” said George Chang, who had just stepped out of the meditation booth. "It was a freezing field, with voices telling you what you should do — breathing exercises, that kind of thing.”

There was also a focus on VR’s applications for storytelling and journalism. A project produced by UBC journalism students and VICE News whisked convention attendees to Chile, which has seen a spike in HIV infections.

Interviews with HIV-positive Chileans were recorded using 360-degree cameras, which, when viewed through a VR headset, make for an intensely intimate experience.

“You’re brought into conversation with people who have HIV in a very close, personal way, and they tell you an emotional story of this feeling of isolation they feel with the disease,” said Taylor Owen, a UBC digital media professor.

Though virtual reality is currently a niche technology — the most expensive headset, the Vive, costs more than $1,100 — Owen believes it will eventually break through to the mainstream. Facebook acquired Oculus for $2 billion two years ago, and polls have found the majority of people get at least some of their news through the social media site.

“[Facebook] is making a big bet on this virtual world and they’re already the place that most news is consumed, so we should probably start paying attention to that,” Owen said.

The professor, who co-hosted a talk on journalism and VR at the convention, is also currently studying whether the medium creates a greater sense of empathy from news consumers than print or two-dimensional video.

“There’s a huge amount of hype over this stuff,” Owen said.

“Some of the hype is grounded in this idea of empathy. Somehow, because you experience looking at a world through the perspective of someone else, you’ll empathize with their situation better. And that may be the case, but we don’t know yet.”

To learn more about the Consumer Virtual Reality convention, which is expected to return to Vancouver in 2017, visit the website