I’m Very Puzzled…
A new “Gold Rush” is on. Billions are being poured into the Next Great Technology. Of course, I am talking about Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality. Every day we read in the popular and business press of the incredible new opportunities just around the corner – be it games, entertainment, education, business, or whatever else may come to mind.
How did all this suddenly come about? In my opinion, a major factor was the unbelievably large amount Facebook management decided to spend to acquire Oculus. Who would have guessed that a relatively simple software-corrected optical system could be worth billions? But apparently this was enough to set off this latest “Gold Rush”. So we are in the midst of something that is being touted as far more exciting than 3D television was a few years ago.
In the many articles predicting this great new future -- that is just barely around the corner -- there is usually at least a passing mention that quite often people experience nausea while immersed in their virtual reality experience. Well, what a surprise! Isn’t it well known that when we create sensory conflicts that bad things will happen? There are well-known medical tests to determine susceptibility to motion sickness that rely on creating just such sensory conflicts.
We humans have evolved to use multiple senses to assess what is happening to us. Motion is sensed with our eyes, our ears, and our stomachs. Our brains take these inputs and have learned to make sense of them and to test for agreement. If there is a disparity then the message goes out that something is wrong. A typical reaction is nausea – probably because our cavemen ancestors learned that dizziness meant they had eaten something bad and needed to get rid of it. So we shouldn’t be surprised that when we see something with our eyes that does not agree with our other motion sensors in our ears and the rest of our bodies that bad feelings are likely to result.
However, even beyond that, it is puzzling why VR and AR are suddenly such hot topics. In October 1993 I wrote a column for Information Display Magazine with the title “Is Virtual Reality About to Become Real Reality”. The inspiration for that column was that there was a new magazine on the newsstands dedicated to Virtual Reality. What better evidence that a new market had opened up than to have a dedicated publication? In that column I speculated that by 1997 we would have entertainment units such as Virtual Reality Chairs that would allow us to be immersed in a surround 3D visual experience that could be used for games, entertainment, or other simulated reality experiences. This was possible with the technology that existed in 1997 and would have been more comfortable (and not much more expensive) than the clunky headsets that are now being developed.
So what are the fundamentals that are so different 22 years later to cause a major revival of this effort? Displays are better but still have a perceptible “screen door” effect. Basic optics technology has not changed hardly at all. Perhaps the biggest change is compute power. However, it still requires a top-end personal computer to do the proposed games and entertainment experiences and a tether to the head-mounted display unit.
Hmmm… It all seems so disconnected from reality. We are expecting people to wear heavy uncomfortable helmet-like devices on their heads that present a limited viewing window that is not at all like the 180-degree view side-to-side and top-to-bottom that we experience with our own visual systems. And then we are expected to train our senses to ignore fundamental conflicts so we can enjoy this semi-immersive experience. Of course the novelty factor will be there and allow some products to enjoy at least modest success. However, to make even these rudimentary products work there will have to be content that is much harder to create – even harder than good stereoscopic 3D.
Perhaps we are at the stage in technology development where we are desperate for something new and novel. This is good for us in the display community because it creates a demand for ever-better displays. But when it is all said and done, will this really be that Great New Thing that was worth the billions being spent on it?
I would very much like to hear your thoughts on real, virtual, or anticipated experiences. How do you plan to cope with these appliances on your head and with the sensory conflicts? Will you become immersed or will you have to stop to recover? You may reach me directly from this site or by telephone at 425-898-9117.