I first encountered Virtual Reality in a few movies in the 90s. Characters wearing giant headsets and inhabiting virtual worlds. At that time, it seemed a creative plot device, but not much more. Till recent months, I thought of it only as a somewhat cool but clumsy gaming mechanic. It could make playing Call of Duty more immersive, sure. Till you turn your head and the surroundings pixelate.
But I was wrong.
A lot of articles today talk of the VR industry as fast coming of age. The first heavy-duty Virtual Reality headsets will hit the market in 6 months. Yes, ‘coming of age’ is a heavy cliché – Bollywood has been coming of age since I was ten. But the term has a specific meaning in Virtual Reality – ‘presence’. A VR environment achieves presence when it’s of such high quality that it tricks your brain. It’s when your mild fear of heights stops you from bungee jumping in a virtual adventure game. One minute you’re laughing at a joke from your friends. The next, you’re struck with sudden terror that a zombie’s about to eat you.
I thought this talk of ‘presence’ was idle fan-boy chatter. How can an obviously artificial image fool anyone? Then I saw this:
Looks like VR will achieve presence soon (if not already) in games. But what are the implications of this, beyond standard First Person Shooter games? Is it going to affect oldies like me who’re over games?
There’s a saying in the industry that virtual reality is the ‘last medium’. Once VR achieves presence and becomes ‘real’, you don’t need any other communication medium. You can communicate anything within VR, using just code.
If that’s the case, possibilities are limitless.
I’ve just listed a few below, off the top of my head. These are not flights of fancy. Quite the contrary. What would surprise me is if someone somewhere is not already doing all of these things.
1. Games + Motion Tracking
I lied – I’m not over games. The most immediate potential is there. But not Doom in VR. When Doom first came out, I heard of people dying from shock while playing the game on a slow PC. Imagine the same in (virtual) reality – recipe for a spike in heart attacks.
Instead, simpler games could be the way to go. Just like Wii caught on with embarrassingly crude graphics in amateurish games. Combine this with motion tracking, and this could well be Wii 2.0. Mortal Kombat, where you’re actually fighting. Tip: Make sure you do this in a large room, or you’ll bust your knee on a wall.
2. Physical Fitness & Development
This follows almost immediately from gaming. How would you port Temple Run to Virtual Reality? With a treadmill. And what better way to learn a martial art than to spar with Morpheus? (Plus it would be a virtual rendering… of a movie about virtual reality).
But not just physical development. VR could also improve your confidence. Could a VR simulation where you defuse an atomic bomb and save a billion people improve your self-esteem?
Peace of mind is also not far away. No longer will your meditation guru say, “Imagine a sylvan paradise…” He’ll say, “Wear this headset.”
This could well be the ‘killer app’ that brings VR to the mainstream. Can’t spare the cash for a trip to Easter Island? Experience it in VR instead. You’ll feel like you’re there. You could also make the long pending pilgrimage to Las Vegas with your best friend. Sitting at your respective desks 500 miles apart. Always scared of skydiving? Do it virtually and enjoy the thrill (and terror) from the comfort of your sofa.
But why restrict yourself to places on Earth? You could even travel to distant stars, stopping over at Pluto on the way.
And talking of space, can time be far behind? I visited some Indus Valley ruins last year and got mighty bored. What if, instead, I could go back in time and walk among the people who lived there?
Having explored all four dimensions of reality, why stop there? (Can you tell I’m enjoying this?) Dive into a book instead – Sophie’s World Redux. Experience To Kill a Mockingbird from Scout’s eyes. Or Atticus’ – take your pick. What about movies? I don’t know about you, but I’d love to say, “Why. So. Serious?”.
Education also smacks of potential for virtual reality. When I was a kid, my dad got me a Dinosaur encyclopedia CD. It had videos that you could watch with 3D glasses. I loved that almost as much as Jurassic Park. But tomorrow’s kids will be able to experience all this in VR.
VR will also pave the way for a better understanding of the micro-world. A biology student will be able to take a roller-coaster ride through the esophagus. Then fall into the stomach, just in time to see digestion happen. Or zoom in a little more and see how the body’s cells function.
5. Occupational training – Simulators
Simulators have been in use for a long time to train pilots. But VR would bring a step-change in training and testing. You’d be able to place the trainee under pressure with a stalling engine, and see how they react. It’s one thing to know what to do in a theoretical exam. But when you actually believe you’re going to crash, we’ll see what stuff you’re made of.
We could also use simulators for physical rehabilitation after severe injuries. Re-learning movements would be much easier (and more enjoyable) if you’re playing a game.
Parental training is another area to explore. VR and motion tracking could help test how well you’d handle a child, and teach you what to do. Maybe in the future we’ll have parent certifications too? OK, maybe I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.
6. Augmented Reality
Augmented reality (AR) is a close cousin of Virtual Reality. Instead of a completely artificial world, you overlay simulated objects on the real world. But good AR is at least five or ten years away. With current processor speeds, it’s much harder to overlay virtual objects on your surroundings in real-time.
But once Moore’s Law does its thing, great AR will become possible. Once that happens, we could do a lot of interesting things:
- We could have real-life navigation in our cars. The correct turns would be highlighted on your glasses. Yes, this may be distracting. But we can have our little fun, before self-driving cars make all this redundant.
- Games could become a lot more engaging. Imagine: you’re in Rome, and you play a treasure hunt across the important monuments. The ‘treasures’ don’t have to placed anywhere. The moment you reach the right place, you’ll see them on your glasses.
- The next Farmville won’t be on Facebook. It may be in your drawing room.
- There would be business implications too. Virtual meetings will finally become a decent substitute for actual presence. You’d see perfect holograms of your colleagues around your table, as you brainstorm on the next VR product you’re going to create.
- Finally, the way you consume content would change completely. Remember Minority Report? A company in Florida, Magic Leap, is working to create exactly that experience. Check out this video:
I’m excited about Virtual Reality, and the many new frontiers it will unlock. But it will also unlock several opportunities to make a ton of money.
Every new communication platform creates several industries in its wake. TV created filming technology innovators, video content companies, and network behemoths. iOS and Android have fueled sharp growth in many industries – app design and development, mobile advertising, and even frameworks and systems to make app development easier.
Virtual reality holds even more promise, as it combines both technology and visual depiction. The main platforms are emerging – Oculus Rift, Sony’s Project Morpheus, and Samsung’s Galaxy Gear. Others will appear soon. This will create opportunities in many areas, including:
- Creation of VR content. Whether games, tourist content, or any of the ideas mentioned above.
- Technology to help capture the content. 360-degree camera rigs to capture VR-ready videos, apps to help you create VR videos using your phone, etc.
- Programming architectures to write code for VR, and frameworks / SDKs to help in VR app development (like PhoneGap for Android and iOS).
Thus, VR could be the next big thing. It could change how we consume content and travel, and afford tremendous business opportunities. And then they’ll start using it for porn.
Hope you had as much fun reading this article as I had writing it. I didn’t think VR was a big deal, till I got to reading about it. What’s your reaction – comment here, tweet at @jithamithra, or email me at [email protected]. Also, before I forget. I’ve put together a few interesting articles on VR in my newsletter this week. Check it out here.