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Virtual Reality: Time to Move on

 

This might sound a bit strange, but it was my dad’s 80th birthday that helped me realize how close modern society has gotten to totally immersing itself in the world of virtual reality.

Our family came together, not only from all over Germany, but from across Europe and the US. Lots of hugs. Lots of talks.

At some point, when my siblings and I were flipping through a family picture book, my father came up and handed me my old Ricoh, which was used to take many of the pictures we were looking at.
In the 80s and 90s, Ricoh was a legendary brand on the camera market. Fast. Easy to use. Reliable. Ricoh cameras looked cool and made fabulous pictures. My faithful Ricoh served me for many years.

kr-10

It was still fully functional. It struck me then that the digital revolution took over the universe long before the device had reached its limits.  

My good old KR-10  became completely useless. First, I replaced it with a digital version, then smartphones evolved—the rest is history. Forgive me, my friend, but now I can take, edit, and share even better pictures with a powerful, tiny camera built right into my phone.

Ten years ago, many people couldn’t even imagine that such technology would exist, just as it’s hard for us to believe today that Virtual Reality will be a real thing in a matter of a few years.

Many people look at Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Google Cardboard and think that VR is an invention for geeks and gamers or likely the next big thing in porn — and nothing more for many, many years ahead. At this point, these gadgets are too pricey and too difficult to set up, and their “real” value is unclear.

But I believe that sooner than everyone is expecting, and we’ll be spending so much time in Virtual Reality and doing so much there that it will raise the question of which reality is more important and actually “real” – in other words lines will be blurring. 

Trust me, the future is coming, whether you like it or not.

VR headsets are already winning rave reviews in the media. Ironically, that sometimes makes it even harder to believe that virtual reality is becoming a real thing.

The media are too obsessed with screens. But in terms of technology, screens are a solved issue. It’s only a matter of time before we get flawless, lightweight, wireless headsets that will be able to show you a world that is even more convincing than what you see through your window right now.

Todays solutions are tethered. But to fully immerse yourself in a virtual world, you need to move freely there and interact with objects as you do in the real world. And that is a big deal.

HTC Vive, the most advanced VR device available now, allows its users to move within a 15×15 foot square and interact with different objects using two controllers. That means you can’t run a marathon on Mars or shake an alien’s hand (let’s suppose it has one).

How do you make users walk in a virtual world but keep them in place in the Real Reality? How do you make them feel that they hit a wall with their heads without knocking down walls  in the real world?

I admit we’re in an early phase and there is still a lot of research to do. That doesn’t mean we won’t find solutions in just a few years.

For starters, there is a thing called redirected walking, which can trick you into thinking that you’ve trekked a few miles down the road while in reality you were walking in circles and  haven’t left the room.

A few teams have also come up with a relatively cheap physical answer to the walking question—a treadmill. Omni is probably the most famous treadmill project, but it is not the only one.

There are a bunch of them out there: Kat Walk, Cyberith Virtualizer, Spacewalker VR, Infinadeck, and a notably big thing called Omnifinity aimed for military training.

 

Some of them are more promising, some are less, but it’s obvious that the solution has some limits that can’t be overcome (though we backed Omni on Kickstarter and can’t wait to get it to testing).

Walking forward and backward isn’t the only type of movement you need to make in virtual reality. What about walking up and down the steps, for example? What about flying?

Well, there is at least an answer to that last question—a cool project called Icaros, which will allows you to fly (while working out) in a virtual world.

But I feel even more excited when people try to push the idea much further, like the creators of AxonVR—a motion simulator combined with a suit station that aims to simulate any movement you can think of.

 

Unite something like that with something like Ultrahaptics, which uses ultrasound to create tactile sensations in mid-air (an even more bold idea than just making a glove or a suit to imitate tactile sensation), and the task of creating a world with total immersion doesn’t look that undoable.

You don’t even have to recreate the exact sensational experience in real life, since humans are wired to trust their visual input over their other senses. So you can easily convince users that they are touching one thing while they are actually touching something quite different (learn more about so-called redirected touch on the Voices of VR podcast, which I highly recommend).

You may argue that all these projects I mention are moon shots or even moon villages. But I’m pretty sure that we’ll see much more of their kind in a few years—and sooner than we think, someone will finally put all the pieces together and come up with a solid technology.

And the world as we know it won’t be the same anymore.

Google just announced Daydream at I/O—its VR platform baked into uilt on top of Android N. Basically, it’s their open smartphone-based answer to Oculus Rift. Expect announcements from the big handset manufacturers soon—VR is going mainstream and becoming available for everyone. To experience it, you’ll just need your next smartphone (compare that with $1000 for Oculus).

In the 21st century, everything changes faster than we realize. Ask the people who made the Ricohs. Now they sell 360° video capturing cameras for you to upload to immersive videos to Youtube and Facebook. So, I guess it´s time to move on again – see you soon in Virtual Reality.