Virtual reality (VR), the use of digital technology to replace reality with a wholly immersive simulation, was once the stuff of science fiction. So was its sibling, augmented reality (AR), which lets users interact with computer-generated content overlaid on the real world. Although researchers and developers had long speculated about real-life uses for digitally enhanced experiences, initial attempts have floundered because the technology couldn’t deliver a believably immersive experience.
Thanks to Moore’s Law, though, the technology that supports VR and AR is briskly accelerating. In fact, this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show suggested that VR is about to hit the mainstream in a major way. Industry press including Mashable, CNet, and Tech News World noted that what was on display was sufficiently impressive to make it clear that the visual technology, at least, is just about ready for prime time.
Digitally enhanced reality is now firmly in the bend of the exponential growth curve, and the ways in which VR and AR are already being used suggest a staggering diversity of possibilities for the future. They may even force us to rethink the idea of reality itself.
Coming into focus
Although developers are still wrestling with the challenge of realistic haptic feedback — that is, making a digital artifact feel real when you “touch” it — VR and AR are already able to provide sensory experiences that would otherwise be difficult or impossible. For example, Tom’s Shoes, which matches every retail purchase by providing a pair of shoes to someone in need, has long wanted to make an emotional connection between customers and donation recipients. Today, visitors to the company’s flagship store in Venice Beach, Calif., can don VR goggles for a four-minute, 360-degree video that transports them to a small village in Peru and introduces them to the people who live there and benefit from Tom’s donations.
Similarly, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is luring new audiences and enchanting existing ones with a VR clip that lets them both hear the first few minutes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and experience it from the point of view of the conductor, the musicians, and even the music itself as it rises above the stage among swooping, swirling lights.
Coming soon to a shopping mall on you
On a more explicitly commercial note, experts predict VR is the next major frontier for retail. Imagine trying on a dozen outfits in a few minutes using an avatar designed to your measurements, sitting in the simulation of a new car model to see if it’s big enough for your whole family, or browsing a big-ticket jewelry purchase in your own living room.
Home improvement company Lowe’s has already equipped two of its Toronto stores with a Holoroom, an AR space where customers can design a simulated bathroom using different Lowe’s products, then walk through the space holding up a tablet that shows their choices as 3D graphics that they can view from multiple angles. Lowe’s Innovation Labs plans to add kitchen and yard simulations next.
Virtual reality for real problems
VR and AR are transforming the way medicine is taught and practiced. Researchers have already developed a VR experience for patients with brain damage that may test their cognitive function as well as, if not better than, the current standard test. In the near future, AR devices will overlay diagnostic and treatment information over patients’ bodies in the office or operating room, while VR will let medical students safely practice complex procedures on simulated patients.
VR also holds promise for mental health care. Clinics are currently testing VR technology as a safe, private way to expose phobia sufferers to their fears and help people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) practice coping with potentially triggering situations. VR could also be used to distract people from chronic pain and help anxiety sufferers control panic attacks by navigating a VR or AR environment with breathing-operated controls. Researchers are even looking at improving quality of life for the bedridden by giving them the virtual experience of an activity like going for a walk or riding a bike.
What is reality, anyway?
In the 2010 film Inception, a character loses the ability to tell whether or not she’s dreaming. Convinced that the world around her isn’t real, she tries to “wake up” by killing herself. It may be dangerous to take life lessons from science fiction thriller movies, even award-winning ones, but the point is a critical one: Interfering with people’s perceptions of reality isn’t something to be done lightly. Yet the truly mind-bending future for VR and AR lies in its potential to extend our perceptions beyond the current capabilities of the human body — indeed, its potential for changing what we consider reality in the first place.
In an engrossing TED talk that’s been expanded into a new PBS miniseries, neuroscientist David Eagleman explores the possibilities of using VR and AR interfaces to take in, interpret, and feed back information about our surroundings in ways that not only engage our existing senses, but expand them. By using hyperspectral imaging, for example, AR can let us see beyond the one-ten trillionth of the electromagnetic spectrum our eyes can register. We’re currently blind to everything but a tiny slice of what’s happening around us. Technology will soon let us “see” in wavelengths that will illuminate everything from valuable mineral deposits to hazardous emissions to malignant tumors.
But it goes way beyond that. Eagleman gave his speech while wearing a vest that converts sound into complicated patterns of vibrations. Deaf people who wear this vest can actually learn to understand these vibrations as representations of words, much as blind people can read Braille by touch. When Eagleman plugged the vest into a data feed from Twitter during his TED talk, the vest converted tweets about his speech into tactile feedback. He was literally able to feel, in real time, how well his speech was being received!
Now imagine applying that to other data sources, like feedback through a VR or AR peripheral that lets a pilot intuitively sense flight dynamics the way a bird does—or immersive technology that allows a CEO to feel how well the different parts of the business are running. At that point, we’ll move beyond simply creating better digital versions of reality. We’ll be living in a world where reality itself is broader than we can currently imagine.
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