The Future of Virtual Reality (and Augmented Reality)

VR and AR are two of the most exciting techs to look forward to in the coming decade. But where do we see them now and what can we hope to see in the future?

At some point in our lives, we probably would’ve watched a movie or TV show with the concept of Virtual Reality (VR); a character wearing a headset covering the eyes. Maybe even wondered how cool it would be to have our own VR headset like that and be immersed in the world created by computers (programmed by humans, but you get the point). I know I personally dreamed of it, and pretty sure you too. At least millennials. The best and most advanced VR in a movie I have seen is in Avatar.

So, what exactly is VR? It’s basically using computers to simulate a world which can be perceived using special equipment. The most common is the VR headsets. A VR world makes use of both vision and auditory organs to give a totally immersive experience. You could watch movie like you’re actually sitting in a theatre. As VR became more and more developed, controllers (one for each hand) were integrated. Now you can play a game with 360-degree view and have a virtual body that responds to how you move the controllers and make use of triggers. So much so that you can have individual finger movements. Pretty incredible, right?

Full body haptic suit in ‘Ready Player One’. Image Credit: Warner Bros
Full body haptic suit in ‘Ready Player One’. Image Credit: Warner Bros

Well, that’s not all. Developers started making use of Haptic Suits that can basically give you almost a complete experience. Anything touches your virtual body somewhere? You feel it in real life through the Haptic Suit. Playing horror games would actually be a nightmare if that damn ghost touches you while everything is quiet around. Sheesh. I think the best movie to see up to this point is Ready Player One.

AR (Hologram) in ‘Iron Man 2’. Image Credit: Paramount Pictures
AR (Hologram) in ‘Iron Man 2’. Image Credit: Paramount Pictures
AR (Hologram) in ‘Iron Man 2’. Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

Okay, so VR aside. What about Augmented Reality (AR)? AR is basically the enhancements done to real world spaces/objects. The very first thing that comes to mind is Iron Man installations, with the suit displaying various overlays on any terrain or place Tony Stark flies to. We even see that the suit was able to display information on military personnel when Rhodes flies the suit into a military hangar. Then there’s the VERY cool part where Tony scans a city model and tells Jarvis to project it, and then proceeds to interact and manipulate whatever he wanted to. All AR.

My first proper exposure to the concept was when Google announced its Google Glasses back in 2012. It pretty much blew my mind. The glasses could use applications like Google Maps and applications for facial recognition, translation, exercise, social networks and such. All resting on the bridge of your nose. Since then, we have come across many AR applications, be it in mobile games, smartphone cameras, and even in military.

Pokemon Go. Image Credit: Greg Kumparak, Tech Crunch

Back when Pokémon Go was released, it caused quite a stir. Even I’m guilty of playing it excessively. It was my first real interaction with AR. The fun of being able to capture new Pokémon made me walk 10s of kilometres every week. A Pokémon overlaid in real world terrain and tossing a Poké Ball towards it made it feel real in a sense.

Other applications in smartphones would be with cameras. Samsung flagships make use of Time of Flight (ToF) sensors to measure the depth of field and create AR texts and such with accuracy, such that the created AR object would move along with respect to what it was created on. There are applications that overlay furniture onto the space in a room. As the accuracy improved, this certainly helped people get an idea of how they can furnish a room and also how it would look.

In countries like the U.S., AR is even used in military. Say for reconnaissance on a particular target. An AR-enabled head-mounted display (HMD) could overlay blueprints or a view from a satellite or overheard drone directly onto the soldiers’ field of vision.

A company called Brain Power began selling the Google Glass as part of a program to help people with autism, improving their social skills and rewarding them for slowly but surely learning to interact in positive ways with the world around them.

Okay, so now that I have told what VR and AR are, let me tell you what I think their futures are going to be.

In a recent talk with Mark Zuckerberg, the host Marques Brownlee on his YouTube channel MKBHD, discussed about Zuckerberg’s plans for the future of VR, and it was pretty interesting. I strongly suggest that you watch it.

I’ll give you the TLDR version of it. He wants to build a platform that delivers the sense of presence, which can give you the spatial awareness of a person being there with you, as opposed to just seeing someone through a screen. He envisions that in 5–10 years, people are able to use smaller HMDs and be able to experience media in a way such that people actually feel that they’re a part of the experience. To be able to ‘hold’ objects and play around with them. Even better would be AR in sleek, normal looking glasses that can basically show you the media content based on your environment. In the video he uses the example of Marques being projected as hologram, sitting on a couch and handing him a phone. The need of actual screens may not be relevant anymore since anything and everything can be viewed through AR. He talks about integrating senses into AR/VR in the way how SONAR works, to be able to feel an object being there without even touching it.

When a tech giant himself has said the future of VR and AR, I don’t have anything to disagree with. But, apart from what he mentioned, here are a few possible applications of VR and AR:

  1. With advancements in network speeds, new doors open for VR. Companies have already started working on 6G networks even before 5G could solidify. So, when 6G happens, the latency would be so low that the actions would be perceived to be as instantaneous as real life. This could help in medical care a great deal. Imagine a doctor performing a surgery from his home using a robot and VR.
  2. It could be applicable for anything really. You could go shopping without leaving your house. No, I’m not talking about current online shopping on sites like Amazon. A huge virtual mall with virtual avatars of people buying things. Shopping for dresses? You go into the virtual dressing room and it shows how the dress would look on in the mirror or on your actual avatar. Impressive, right?
  3. We can even take a VR tour of the Moon or even Mars. Or visit places that we normally cannot visit. Maybe even try Bungee jumping if the actual experience is too terrifying or too costly. The worst that can happen is your legs buckle and you fall to the ground.
  4. AR could help greatly with education, if you think about it. Imagine reading about some object, and you can have an AR version of it that enables you to interact and observe its details and workings. Or you’re designing something and you can practically put together pieces (like how Tony does it).
  5. If you had to repair something, and you had the object’s model projected with disassembly and reassembly instructions, you would save a lot of brain work involved.
  6. AR can come in handy with archaeology as well. A total AR simulation of an archaeology site for you to zoom in and analyse, with different materials coloured differently.
  7. Like Zuckerberg said, conferencing would be really easy with VR and AR. If you’ve watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier, remember S.H.I.E.L.D’s top brass conference.

In short, the applications are limitless, and I’m leaving things to your imagination. All these advancements would’ve helped out greatly if they were already accessible during this pandemic, but it is what it is. Either way, I’m excited at how things may unfold and what the future holds in store for us.

Oh, watch Ready Player One. Good movie for VR applications.

References and Suggested Reading

Originally published at https://www.sciencenstuff.com on October 4, 2020.

Just a millennial trying to figure out what works.