It’s Back to the Future for Virtual Reality

By Chad Otis, Executive Creative Director

Standing on the conference floor, I pull on a headset that covers my eyes. I’m immersed in a low-poly virtual landscape. I’m instructed to “look around.” I comply. After a little more instruction, I’m swooping through vector fjords and past floating rocks by simply fixing my gaze and turning my head. I pull the headset off and walk away – my head reeling – both from the disorienting experience and from the potential I see for this amazing new technology. That was 1996 at the Siggraph Conference in L.A.

If you’ve been following the VR hype, you’ll know that frame rate and latency have always been cited as the key reason for lack of adoption of virtual reality in the past. Twenty years later, these problems have been solved, the hype has reached fever pitch, and the experts are forecasting numbers that rival those of the mobile phone.

 

Digital Hollywood.

Earlier this month I joined a panel at the Digital Hollywood Media Summit on the Upper East Side of New York City. Although the conference was subtitled as Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Experience, the panels and conversations were dominated by virtual reality with almost no mention of augmented reality. Filmmaking, immersive video, games, and, of course, monetization, were the focus of much of the conference. Makes sense, this is Digital Hollywood after all. But, much of the discussion centered on the idea that virtual reality was going to be the next big thing; that it will become a part of our lives in the way mobile phones have. (Digital Hollywood recap can be found here)

This won’t happen. Not because of something like frame rate, latency or cost, but because of resistance to adoption due to the visibility of the hardware and the related social awkwardness. Remember Google “Glassholes?” Google’s head mounted AR system, the ill-fated v1 of Google Glass, elicited immediate and passionate response from people sharing space with those wearing the device in public. There were even reports of wearers being physically attacked. The main concern was privacy. People didn’t know if they were being captured as video, photographed or otherwise analyzed. Facial recognition technology can recognize individuals and instantly display personal information. The reaction is understandable. It’s creepy.

 

Invisibility.

Virtual Reality will not be mainstream until its invisible. By invisible, I mean that the hardware worn will be more or less unseen by other people. Hidden. Inserted in ears, worn in eyes and, even then, by definition, it won’t be virtual reality that is adopted by the masses; it will be augmented reality that accounts for the vast majority of mainstream use. That said, invisibility for augmented reality is not in our near future. But, it’s coming.

 

The Six Billion Dollar Man (adjusted for inflation).

TV futurists had this figured out in the 70’s. Today, there’s an underground biohacker movement along with well-funded efforts working on making it real.

Hiding the hardware will evolve from wearables to insertables to implantables. I’m not sure if any of those are Webster-approved words, but you get the idea. We’ll go from wearing glasses to wearing contact lenses to having lenses surgically implanted – a simple procedure that happens hundreds of times a day for cataract sufferers. We don’t need to leap shipping containers with bionic legs, but invisibility for eyes, ears and hands would probably be the winning combination.

 

Here’s what’s happening now.

First, let’s talk about eyes.

Luxottica and Google are working on v2.0 of Google Glass. If they’re as smart as everyone says they are, they won’t make the Ferrari of AR glasses (Luxottica is the world’s largest eyewear company – headquartered in Italy), but instead, make normal glasses with AR capabilities. Done right, this could be a big step toward invisibility as a wearable. Sure, you might find yourself wondering if those are AR Ray Bans or just regular Ray Bans, but at least people won’t think you’re a total Glasshole. (Sneak peek Google Glass 2.0 can be found here)

Magic Leap submitted a patent for AR contact lenses in September of 2015. I’m not sure how they’d be powered or if they’d cast a heads-up display directly onto our retinas, but as an “insertable” this would be pretty close to invisible.

 

How about hands?

Device bundles like the HTC Vive and Playstation VR include handheld wands or paddles to allow visible hand-tracking in the VR view. But these paddles and wands don’t account for finger articulation or natural hand movement.

Leap Motion’s Orion project is working on device-free hand-tracking in combination with VR headsets. Okay, no wands or paddles. It’s invisible.

 

Ears might be the easiest.

Did you see the movie, Her? Everyone walks around mumbling to themselves – or, as it turns out, they’re mumbling to devices inserted in their ears. The devices act as a Turing-tested artificially intelligent natural voice (Scarlett Johansson) interface to the newest version of a popular OS. Things like the Amazon Echo are doing a very good job of understanding natural language. Users can voice commands to the free-standing device without needing to launch an app or tap a button. Of course, that’s happening in the privacy of one’s home. In public, people still seem reluctant to ask Siri for directions out loud on the street for example. We might have to get over this hang up – reliable thought translation technology is probably a long way off.

 

In summary.

VR will be great for games and entertainment. I can’t wait, and don’t have to for long – Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Playstation and others have near-future launch dates.

AR will be what goes mainstream – but only when it becomes invisible. I’ll have to wait. In the meantime, I’ll look forward to a life experienced through surgically altered eyes and cochlear implants with Scarlett Johansson. Okay, it doesn’t sound that great when I say it like that, but we’ll see.

 

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