Virtual Reality – Really?…
The VR “gold rush” is on! This year is supposed to be the year when Virtual Reality becomes Real Reality. Venture money is over-flowing into the various start-ups that are staking out their place in what is expected to be the great new class of products. Even conservative publication like Consumer Reports are jumping on the bandwagon with a recent article titled “’Reality’ as You Know It Is About to Change”. This article describes how VR will affect us in education, construction, empathy, socializing, sports, journalism, engineering, car design, and travel. Did they miss anything? Is the world as we know it about to go away?
Doesn’t all this remind you of something from our recent past? Wasn’t it something called 3D? Wasn’t our world going to change with that new technology also? Of course we have indeed seen some truly revolutionary changes with gadgets such cell phones and iPads. And Facebook has by now pretty much changed how we interact with each other. So why wouldn’t VR fit right in as another technology every bit as revolutionary as these?
Perhaps it will happen, but here are a few thoughts to ponder regarding, “What could possibly go wrong?” If we consider what has happened to that great 3D opportunity, we will see that in spite of the intense promotion it failed as a technology for home use and in theaters it became successful for movies that are based on science fiction, animation, or fantasy topics. In fact, it seems to have spawned a renewed interest in such subjects. Why is that? As we have written before, stereoscopic 3D has significant limitations because it does not present the viewer with a truly realistic three dimensional image. It cannot give us realistic depth of focus and there is no parallax shift when we change our head position. So we see something that has a “doll house” or diorama kind of look. This is perfectly acceptable when watching topics that are already in the realm of fantasy. For those we can readily suspend our expectations of reality and the overall effect is enjoyable. But as by now we have learned, this works quite well in a movie theater but does not work in a home environment where the surroundings remind us just how artificial the 3D image is.
Will VR successfully overcome these limitations? Clearly there are many entrepreneurs who have absolutely no doubt that success is just around the corner of the next round of funding.
However, consider the following real example. Recently, I was sitting on an airplane parked at the gate waiting for the imminent push-back for departure. There was another airplane at the adjacent gate. It started its push-back before we did. However, I did not know that and as I was looking out the window all I could see was the moving body of the other airplane. My visual senses told me that we must be moving forward. However, the rest of me did not sense any movement. Instantly, I felt a wave of motion sickness wash over me. Of course, within a few moments I realized what was going on and the queasy feeling subsided. Nevertheless, this was a good example of what happens when our senses get conflicting information.
So what will happen with VR when our visual system is presented with motion but the rest of our senses are getting different inputs? If we experience a roller coaster ride in a movie theater, our peripheral vision still gets information that we are not really moving. But if we eliminate that peripheral information, what then?
Let’s consider another potential challenge. When we move our heads we expect the visual cues that we get from our surroundings to respond accordingly. But suppose there is a slight delay? The VR systems will have some small amount of time lag because there has to be a sensor that sends a signal about our head position and then the electronics has to generate the image that corresponds to the new head position. How short does this delay need to be to not be objectionable? Most imaging systems work on the basis of storing frames, modifying them and then sending them from a memory. If the delay is more than a frame or two this could add to the feeling of motion sickness and/or disorientation.
All of the VR systems that have been shown so far are quite large and bulky. The weight of the system has to be distributed with either a head strap or with a nose cushion or both. How long will users be willing to have such a large contraption strapped to their heads before discomfort takes over? Will some also not like to have their hair messed up from the straps on these devices?
If we add all this up, the VR gold rush is build on a device that shows stereoscopic 3D that is not realistic, it gives our visual system different and conflicting information from our other senses, and it straps a bulky and uncomfortable device onto our heads. Somehow this just doesn’t seem like the next great sustainable user experience.
However, none of this will deter the entrepreneurs and promoters. And we can expect that as these products are introduced many will flock to try them out. For a year or two, it will be 3D in-the-home all over again. It will take at least a few years to assess the final outcome. In the meantime, we can all enjoy the adventure of exploration that this new technology wave will bring.
Am I being too pessimistic? Will VR indeed be the next great wave of visualization? I would enjoy hearing your thoughts. I can be reached directly from this site, or by phone at 425-898-9117.