Five Opportunities (and one trap) of Reality Technology

By Kevin Swann, Strategist

Reality technology—technologies that create immersive virtual environments, digitally augment the existing environment, or mix digital and real environments so that they interact—is all the rage. Think VR, AR, and MR. And though these technologies have existed in one way or another for a few decades, they’re only recently making the switch from technological curiosity to industry game changer.

The breadth of opportunities reality tech affords are daunting—how does one think about what to make when reality is your canvas? Already there are a few emergent trends in the reality tech space that are worth thinking about. Some of them are aesthetic choices concerned with pushing the limits of this new medium, others are about the ethical choices developers should consider when making reality tech experiences, but they all reflect some of the coolest – and most useful – work being done in reality tech.


Experiment with the point of view

Reality tech experiences that put users in another point of view could have implications for how we work, learn, and play, and live.

So far, however, this particular tech has only fitfully embraced this potential. This is unsurprising. Early film, for example, depicted mundane things like trains leaving stations because the goal was to show-off that film displays moving photographs. Only later did filmmakers explore its ability to manipulate images via lighting, optical effects, and editing, in such a way it that immersed viewers in another point of view. Now when we watch films, we do not simply watch Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star, we experience his tension from his point of view (of course, he did bullseye womp rats from his T-16 back home, so I don’t personally see what all the fuss was about).

What will reality tech look like when it embraces the idea that it can control and construct the user’s point of view?

  • Imagine being able to see the world as an expert, like Sherlock. The DAQRI Smart Helmet does just this for engineers and maintenance workers by offering an in-helmet HUD that reads the world for telling clues much like Sherlock does.
  • Reality tech is, like film (per Roger Ebert), an “empathy machine.” MIT is already seeing the potential of this technology to foster empathy with deaf people, and people with migraines or depression.


Create experiences that benefit everyone

Technological advances are unevenly distributed—new tech is usually expensive at first, and often made for able-bodied and neurotypical users. Reality tech has the ability to democratize access to technology by making it not only usable for everyone, but also by building experiences tailored to the technologically underserved.

There is no reason that reality tech experiences need to be primarily visual when they could just as easily take place in an immersive, virtual, audio space. There is no reason to build experiences around gesture-based interfaces when eye-based and voice interactions are possible. The only barrier to entry is the cost of the gear and the desire to create experiences for an underserved few. Google Cardboard and phone-based augmented reality have already addressed the cost issue. Addressing the desire issue is another matter.

However, there are already some interesting reality tech applications that are tailored for underserved populations and some worthy research that suggests how it could build empathy with vulnerable populations.

  • HoloHear is a Hololens application that has been called “Google Translate for Deaf People”
  • Honor Everywhere allows aging veterans who are unable to travel to see the memorials in their honor


Get people collaborating

Fostering collaboration is one of reality tech’s most promising areas of opportunity. Multiple remote users working on the same problem in a shared virtual space (or local users working on a shared problem in a shared MR space) opens new possibilities in job training, education, research, gaming, and industry.

Reality tech has already been put to work to make medical training and practice safer and more effective. How about expanding this to help patients get second opinions on diagnoses without having to travel to see a specialist? Why not allow them to assemble medical teams from all over the world?

  • The KeckCAVES at UC Davis is a great example of how reality tech lets researchers examine data together in a virtual space that makes new ways of research and collaboration possible.


Don’t just visualize data: make it an object

The contemporary world produces more data than anyone can navigate in a lifetime, and that data increasingly controls the world that we experience on a day-to-day basis. This makes data visualization—the ability to turn numbers into visuals that viewers can quickly and easily understand—a critical art. But what if we could turn complex data into a virtual object that an end user could physically manipulate?

A great example is a prototype at BioFlight that turns 2D CT and MRI scans into lifelike 3D models that can be manipulated in real time, allowing doctors to make better diagnoses and create better treatment plans. But the same concept could be used to make any data set into an object. Why not do the same for climate, market, or epidemiological data? How might this help us develop new insights about infrastructural problems, like traffic, housing, and energy?


Make it a portal into the internet of things

Some of the most exciting advances in reality tech are those that bring it into the Internet of Things. As connected devices continue to proliferate and intermingle, users will increasingly find themselves in a web of haphazardly connected things, each with its own idiosyncratic interface, difficult to use automation, and untapped user value. Reality tech can help to unleash this deeper value in products by letting users see and interact with their IoT devices’ full capabilities. Does your fridge talk to your echo? You should be able to see that as a visible connection between the two. Is your lock able to connect to your lights? Show that too!

  • One concept for a reality tech interface puts connected devices at users’ fingertips, literally, by placing icons for connected IoT technologies at the ends of users’ fingers.
  • The Reality Editor 2 goes even further, allowing users to point their phones at anything to show an augmented reality interface.


The (virtual) reality of our new world

The unsurprising popularity of Pokemon Go showed that people are ready for reality tech. However, the briefness of Pokemon Go’s popularity shows that slapping an augmented reality element to a standard grind & fight game isn’t enough. People need reality tech experiences that are fun, useful, and well thought out or they see it as just another technological gimmick. Of course, there are millions of ways to show of the potential and utility of this new technology. These five are, to my mind, the most exciting and promising.

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