Pervasive Adoption of Mixed and Virtual Reality Technologies Will Fundamentally Change Everything
I finally introduced my family to the Oculus Rift last night. Predictably, the reactions were completely mixed but all thoroughly impressive. The difference in perspective and demographic of the user-base greatly affected the perceived potential uses of the technology in the same way that mobile phones and the internet are broad enablers that appeal to both cutting-edge early adopters as well as tech-savvy octogenarians just looking to keep in touch, be entertained, and stay informed. My personal prediction is that widespread adoption and cultural integration/acceptance of these technologies may, for lack of a better phrase, change everything.
My mother was the first to try the Oculus. When my family showed up at my apartment, she exuberantly yelled that she wanted to be the first to try the device, a privilege we all, of course, allowed.
The thing you need to know about my mother is that she does not enjoy thrill rides. No roller coasters, not even larger Ferris wheels or those Tea Cups at DisneyWorld are in her wheelhouse.
So after loading up my favorite ‘float around in space’ demo, I think about 30 seconds had passed before my mother exclaimed, “Ok, I’m done, that’s it!! How do I get this thing off?”
If you’re at all familiar with the history of cinema and motion pictures, then you may be familiar with one of the earliest examples of an exhibited film. The Lumiere Brothers had just finished putting together their combination camera/projector and had photographed a train pulling into the station amongst other small vignettes of daily life at the turn of the last century. When the audience saw the train rapidly coming towards them at an angle that looked it could possibly run them all over, audience members ran out of the room screaming, fearing for their lives. The effect of the motion picture was so good, so convincing, that they thought the train was literally going to bust through the screen.
Today, the idea of audience members assuming a train will come straight out of a train and hit them, physically, in the real world, seems silly. But at the time, no one knew what motion pictures were; they hadn’t experienced anything like that before. They had little or no idea of the tremendous power of film, and, just like stage magicians, the Lumiere Brothers had managed to create the illusion of motion, of weight, of speed, achieving the hallucinatory effect in the viewer of fearing for their lives.
The same trick using just traditional motion pictures would be pretty tough to pull off 100 years later, mainly because everywhere we look now we have screens. There are moving, two-dimensional, photorealistic images everywhere. We can create, manipulate, display and share such moving images at will, within a seconds notice. It is tremendous power granted in just the last 10+ years or so that as first, second, and now even third world citizens have discovered, is a superpower easily and rapidly taken for granted.
By the same token, I later received a message from my mother stating that now that she knew what to expect, she’d like to give the headset another go. It also occurred to me that, hey, maybe flying around space is not necessarily my mom’s thing. Considering this, maybe a virtual living room with some interesting, virtual reality board games, or a straight-ahead dramatic experience ala the holodeck from Star Trek is more her style. As it stands, just like the train pulling into the station was about portraying motion and showing off the capabilities of the technology, almost every demo for the Oculus now centers around motion. There is not really a good ‘sit and watch and be surrounded’ environment that I’ve seen yet that doesn’t at minimum involve the chair moving around. It is a fourth dimension that is initially very tough to overcome for some, especially those with sensitivities to motion like my mom.
In the Oculus, the virtual chair moving around a virtual space is more than enough to give the user a real sense of motion, or even induce vertigo in some of the worst cases. It’s the reason you can go on YouTube and find videos of Pit Demos, virtual experiences specifically designed to give the user a sense of motion and throw off the viewer’s inner ear and balance as much as possible. If you think that awareness of this phenomenon would allow you to overcome these sensations, the low-latency tracking of the Oculus and at least passable CGI of the demos short wires your brain and your body into believing what it is seeing.
As virtual and mixed realities continue to evolve, I believe that much in the way mobile gaming has opened the door to a demographic that previously would not have identified as computer gamers, new applications will be developed that integrate the technology while still appealing to the more casual user. And as our acceptance and understanding, our gradual comfort with these technologies and their relevant interfaces, increases, so too will our ability to strap into a virtual reality space and basically accept the reality that it is presenting us. Eventually, the sense of motion may not be as foreign as it is currently to the average user.
To speak further to this shifting, widening perceived view of this technology, I’d like to offer my younger sister and father’s viewpoints as well. My sister was the next to try the Oculus Rift and was immediately much more comfortable with the device. For the first 2-3 minutes of the demo, reminiscent of myself, she could not help but audibly describe how amazing and utterly cool the experience was. Then she continued to fly around and explore the Solar System for about 8-10 minutes or so before asking if anyone else wanted a turn.
At the end of the run, my sister started asking about how the Oculus application repository, currently home to beta/in-development applications, worked. When I explained there were already hundreds of demos and games available with varying degrees of quality and subject matter, she very quickly stated she would love to come back and try a ton more of them.
My dad didn’t have much to say about the Oculus, which is noteworthy for a few reasons. First, some background: my dad knows technology, is a bit of a gadget fetishist like myself (albeit a more closeted one), and is familiar generally with virtual and mixed reality. The novelty of the technology does not phase him. He’s also a speed freak, so motion-laden, thrill-ride experiences are totally up his alley.
But here’s the important part: my dad sat still, with that headset on his head, looking around in near silence, for the better part of 10 minutes.
This is unusual.
Save a few remarks when his virtual spacecraft landed on Mars, my father was more immersed in the experience than I think I’d seen him be for a very long time. I say this without meaning offense to my father– his mind I think just moves pretty quickly—but instead meant as a reflection on the technology.
With this idea in mind, we can all attest to the toddler who won’t sit still or the trouble child with ADHD. Give one of these subjects an iPad or iPhone and they will not only know how to use it, intuitively, but they also begin to spend a ton of time with the device. In addition to being a fetishized object, the iPad or iPhone also becomes a source of fun, knowledge, relationships, etc. While it is arguable whether this will have a positive or negative effect on society as a whole, the case that these devices have tremendously impacted our daily lives and changed how we function remains true.
As soon as he was through with the demo, my dad began commenting on how this would dramatically change education. Of course it will. Even the most latent, boring educational experience becomes enthralling when we can land on Mars in 10 minutes, pilot a submarine through prehistoric oceans, or get up close with the ancient ruins of Egypt and Greece.
If we can put ourselves in the mindset of an average person at the turn of the last century, I would imagine that even the most tech-savvy amongst them could not have foreseen how motion pictures and modern digital display technology would have changed everything. To have foreseen the birth of a motion picture and television industry would have been one thing; I believe that people may have started to understand that this was eventually how we would tell stories, first with journalistic, in-the-field newsgathering and next, around 20 years later, with true narrative filmmaking.
But it wasn’t until about the 60s-80s that CRT and LCD technology began to drop screens everywhere. Instead of having just one screen in the house – a small, black-and-white, over-the-air TV set—now families had multiple TV sets and eventually personal computers. Then cell phones. Now we have screens everywhere. And how many of us even stop to consider every minute user interface animation and touchscreen interaction, the moving advertisements, the incredible availability of accessibility now with streaming and on-demand cable services, not to mention widespread internet piracy.
I don’t think Virtual and Mixed Reality will take 100 years to integrate into our culture and lifestyle. The early adopters amongst us will ‘get it’, and click into the more immediate, obvious variety of uses that the technology will allow: gaming, motion pictures, education, etc. For the rest of us—those who don’t take to thrill rides and gadgets—we’ll eventually get our VR Angry Birds and VR Farmville, as well as some VR email, chat, internet browsing, and social media. Consider how we will compose music or jam with our friends? Could our physical training and exercise regimens be monitored and guided by virtual personal trainers?
And what about virtual, immersive cybercrime? In an attempt to explore some of the more potentially sinister uses of Mixed and Virtual realities, the idea of a ‘Virtual Rape’ has already been explored by technologists and cyber-security experts, despite no incident of such having yet occurred.
Ultimately, Virtual and Mixed realities are like any technology: a toolkit. More appropriately, these technologies represent a double-edged sword that can be wielded and manipulated for nearly any purpose the users of that technology see fit. The specific platforms we will be using to cultivate such experiences, along with who the market leaders will be in 5, 10, and 20 years from now are certainly anyone’s guess. But if the ubiquitous, overwhelmingly positive response to the Oculus Rift and other headsets soon appearing in the market is any indication, one thing is certain: VR is coming, and it will change everything.