Why 'VR' matters.
Updated: Mar 18, 2019
We don’t need Virtual Reality (VR) to live. Really, we don’t. In the same way, we don’t need cars, planes, mobile phones or washing machines. But they are here and we use them. Not only that, these things have changed how we live and interact with each-other.
When talking about 'VR’ I’m using the term generally, referring to all the various forms of alternative digital realities that are just around the corner. For people in the industry there are many types of artificial reality – from A.R. (Augmented Reality) to ‘Fully Immersive’ experiences. These all cover a range of senses (sight, motion, smell, etc) and a vast range of experiences.
To understand where ‘VR’ is going, many point to the mobile phone, or the evolution of cinema. I’d rather use the analogy of the motor car, as this has had a longer period of time to impact upon us. The first cars were not from Ford, before this mass production in 1913 there had been steam powered automobiles for over 100 years… Yet we tend to know only of Ford. Why is this? It’s not because of the technology or the ‘affordability’ but the impact that mass production had upon the world. The best technology in the world has little impact if people are separated from it…
In 1865 there was the motoring ‘Red Flag Act’, which required a person to run in front of a car with a red flag, to warn oncoming horses and traffic. This might seem quaint as we race around in our ‘people carriers and convertibles’, but it does show that Health and Safety is not a new concept… Leap forward to where we are now and I’d suggest cars are seen in 3 key ways.
i. Liberation and personal freedom: To be able to ‘go where we want, when we want’, has truly changed our world. Even if we have to work harder in order to afford a car and keep it on the road, the perceived benefits are ones we clearly want and use. Simply put, cars are everywhere.
ii. Direct consequences We may laugh at the people carrying red flags now, but I’d suggest we’ve simply replaced them with all manner of safety devices, from road signs, seat belts, speed cameras, to insurance based speed limiters. Indeed, regardless of all these measures there are several thousand deaths, from automobile accidents every year in the UK alone. [https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/annual-road-fatalities ]
There is even a darker side to the ‘motor engine’ – one that is overlooked perhaps. It has also been used to carry guns, such as tanks, and aided countless deaths over numerous battles and wars. This is important to remember if we want to look towards VR’s future.
iii. Indirect consequences. Pollution, from petrol emissions and noise to the less discussed manufacturing and raw material quarrying consequences. Consumerisation brings with it many side effects which we prefer not to be reminded of.
My point here is that over the course of hundreds of years, we as people have adopted motor vehicles all over the world. They have changed our world – Can you even picture going to a city, anywhere on the planet and not seeing cars?
Now, if we look at where we are with ‘VR’ – yes, it’s true, we have reached mass production. The Oculus Rift was an amazing piece of technology, though still out of the price range for most. Similar to first cars, it will take a long time to evolve. Let’s be honest here… We might be using the latest lenses, silicon and carbon fibre mixed with high frame rate, simulated virtual worlds… but in essence these devices we have now are like cardboard boxes with tape stuck to the side of our heads…
We are at a point where the awareness of ‘VR’ is entering society. It’s very early days, with Hollywood presenting wild visions that differ greatly from what ‘reality’ can offer. But the awareness is growing – and with that comes the same concerns as came with the car.
How will ‘VR’ be used? Who would want to use it? Is it social? Is it affordable? Is it safe…?
I’m going to argue differently to many I have heard. I’m not going to say that VR is ‘the next best thing’ or that it represents amazing opportunities (although those things may be true). It’s deeper than that and potentially more important.
My belief is that VR is similar to the motor car in many ways. I’ll give Three ‘predictions’
1. First and above all else. ‘Virtual Realities’ will change our world. We will live in a world where it will be everywhere. People will find it more strange to be somewhere, without being influenced by it.
2. ‘Virtual Realities’ will ‘liberate us’, similar to the car but with even more impact. Bringing medical and engineering advances, more intuitive education, ways to sift the data of our world and feed it back to us in bite size chunks (e.g. virtual augmented maps). Perhaps most of all it will allow people to be closer when separated by distance. It will offer a way to deliver the mass of data that is being collected and let us make us of it in ways we have yet to imagine.
3. ‘Virtual Realities’ will enslave us, similar to the car but with even more consequences. Bringing a greater divide between the rich and the poor, literally creating different worlds in which people will live. Some will find the technology expensive, alienating and invasive. These people risk being segregated against. Consider an elderly person on disability allowance, unable to afford luxuries, let alone grasp the new tech to communicate with their bank. On the darker side ‘Virtual Realities’ will bring new ‘addictions’, be used to deliver ‘unsavoury’ content and employed as new methods to deliver bullets and bombs [see Microsoft employees recently petitioning against HoloLens being use for Military https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-47339774 ]
My belief is that VR is not simply a tech that will be used for ‘good and bad applications’. Rather it will form a new foundation upon which future societies will build themselves. And in doing this they will bring along all of the wonders and the flaws of humanity. To me it seems likely that the emerging blended realities will not only reflect these aspects who we are, but also exaggerate them, creating greater extremes.
So ‘VR’ is more than a game – it’s an integrated platform, upon which society will gravitate towards.
The motor car has been around for hundreds of years now. Yet its essence is still a basic steam/combustion engine. It has taken this long for it to evolve… Only now are we talking of practical fuel cell vehicles and autonomous vehicles. These things are only possible with advances in Power Consumption, Artificial Intelligence and Virtual mapping (point cloud data) When we look these are also some of the same technologies which are key to VR/AR/MR/XR future growth. Perhaps the development of the humble car and the ‘VR’ is more closely linked than we may feel… [e.g. look into Nvidia’s Tensor core development for AI, Autonomous Vehicles and VR]
Likely this view of the world I’m suggesting is a way off, after my time… but it’s over the horizon and in sight. I’ve been following VR for over 25 years now and the pace at which it is developing continues to accelerate. There is a magic to looking around in a virtual world… Like a child playing in a sandpit, virtual worlds open up the wonder of our world and possibilities within it. I may have argued for how I see VR in the ‘future’, but it's the here and now that really matters.
Now, it’s my hope that Waterlane Studios (and others) can tilt the balance a little towards the positive and use 'VR' to enrich our lives. It truly is a transformational technology with the potential to bring us closer together. It's one thing to try VR, but another thing to watch someone smile from using it. :-)