… We have Virtual lift-off
And now we have the prospect of Virtual Reality making its first foray into the consumer world, with Zuckerberg buying Occulus for $2 billion after just one go on it and Google giving away Cardboard free with newspapers (or you can buy it for a couple of quid), not to mention Samsung’s GearVR and the HTC Vive. So how good is VR? Will it be an overnight sensation or a here today, gone tomorrow technology? Might it ultimately turn us all into the bloated population in hover chairs on the spaceship Axiom in Wall-e?
Well, actually, the answer to that last one is possibly yes. Especially with the rise of the robots, whose likelihood of achieving the ‘singularity’ that techies talk about being not that far off (the current thinking is that it’s likely to occur in 2045). Singularity, by the way is the day when artificial intelligence will be capable of creating better machines than itself in a dizzyingly fast upward spiral of improvement. Then all we’ll have to do all day long is immerse ourselves in the worlds that we create for ourselves or battle the robots in an heroic but ultimately futile attempt at the preservation of the species.
Virtual ‘Bom Chicka Wah Wah’
What’s going to drive VR technology? Well, initially it’s probably porn – the industry famously responsible for VHS and online payment. I’m told (no, really…) that VR porn is amazing, with the immersive nature allowing the participant not only to experience the action as never before, but also to take in, in great detail, how charming the cribs are in which the scenes take place – “See what they’ve done with the pool?” Gaming, too will be a big driver in this market, with First Person perspectives allowing you to really feel like you’re there. But there are all sorts of other applications. Training is going to be a big one, with the ability to produce an experience similar to major simulators for a fraction of the price (the Occulus Rift – perceived as the best at the moment – is pre-selling for around $600). And online meetings could be an absolute winner if there’s a 360 degree camera in the boardrooms.
Won’t this lead to a massive disconnect with physical social interaction coming to a shuddering standstill? Well, it might… and that’s where Augmented Reality – now sometimes called Mixed or Mediated Reality – comes in. The difference is that Augmented Reality is actually going to be properly useful in our daily lives, and not get in the way quite so much. And I think that it’s going to be a winner.
Augmented Reality offers a live view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. This all happens in real-time and in context with your environment, so for instance you could be checking the scores and stats of individual players live whilst watching a match. With the help of AR technology, information about the real world around you becomes interactive and digitally manipulatable.
With built-in 3D depth-sensing cameras and precise motion sensors, AR provides you with projected images that fully interact with your physical world. So, for example, in gaming, virtual objects can bounce off the real furniture and you can blast virtual holes in real walls. Take any profession you like and you’re likely to see an application. Architects, for instance, will be able to see existing buildings or sites with overlays of their plans as well as planning restrictions. Or you could walk around an empty space and think you’re in a car showroom, or actually be in a car showroom and have each car tell you more about itself than any slick salesman could.
For marketing purposes, AR is going to be the Best. Salesman. Ever. And this is the technology that Microsoft is putting big bucks into, with their HoloLens shipping to developers at the end of this month for a mere $3,000 a pop.
So what could put the kybosh on this? Is it just going to be another flash in the pan like Rubik’s cubes and hula hoops? Well, maybe the fact that you look like a dick when you’re wearing VR (and to a lesser extend AR) headsets could play a part. That would be a biggie for me. People en masse wearing 3D glasses in the cinema at least look like they’re wearing RayBans indoors, whereas having what looks like a solid black scuba diving goggles box strapped to your bonce is never going to be on trend in any fashion season. But we used to think that walking along the street holding a mobile phone to your head was totally naff, and yet that’s become socially acceptable, so who knows?
I suspect that there’s room for both these technologies. Ironically, I also think that they shouldn’t be bound together as closely as they are in articles like this one. AR and VR might use the same initial in their description, but their applications are likely to be virtual worlds apart.
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