And Suddenly It’s 1993 -- All Over Again…
In October of 1993, I wrote a column titled “Is Virtual Reality About to Become Real Reality?” In that column, I described a scenario of a home entertainment center that was set up to provide an immersive virtual reality experience. I went on to say “What better leading indicator could we have that there is high user interest and enough technology happenings for someone to publish a magazine about it?” My conclusion in October of 1993 was that, “The next several years will be very interesting because we can expect to see many new products introduced, most of which will not be commercially successful, followed by an evolution of one or a few standard platforms similar to what has happened in desktop and laptop computers.”
So here we are some 22 years later and we seem to be hearing the same story all over again. What went wrong? What did not happen over the last 22 years to make virtual reality a “real” reality? Is there something fundamentally different today – other than the multi-billion dollar investments that are being made? Perhaps the biggest difference is how much more computing capability we have today to try to create the virtual reality experience. We also have made considerable progress in how capably we can model the interface between what a person is doing and how the simulated reality environment needs to respond. The improvements in display performance have not been as dramatic but are of crucial importance in how the virtual reality experience is presented. For most applications 3D has come and gone but could find a happy home with virtual reality.
But, are we there yet? Can we finally expect to cross the boundary between clearly fake reality and something that begins to feel quite real?
This final step may turn out be harder that we think -- and 22 years from now, I may be writing another column about it. Even with the computing and hardware improvements that have occurred over the last 22 years there may yet be significant obstacles. The problem is that as we get more accurate in simulating a virtual environment our brains are busily analyzing the situation and telling us that something is still not quite right. We may want to “believe” but our senses are too smart to fall for the deception – and fight us all the way. Sometimes this is called the “uncanny valley” and is typically applied to robots that are intended to look and act like real humans. The closer we make them look like humans the more disturbing they become. Thus, it becomes extremely difficult to jump the boundary that separates “real reality” from “virtual reality”.
How will this affect the products that are currently under development? What will the future hold for the many start-up companies and their enthusiastic investors? Are we seeing a true breakthrough or are we reliving a 22-year old dream that we forgot about?
With this historical perspective, my tendency is to be somewhat cautious and skeptical about the more enthusiastic predictions. Virtual reality may need to begin its journey to success with some limited applications in specialized areas. Where can we use these capabilities to solve specialized problems? Or perhaps the entertainment market will find some early adopters for games and other viewing experiences. It will be a real surprise -- but not a bad one -- if someone does come up with a virtual reality product that makes a major splash in the marketplace.
In the meantime, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this topic or others. You may reach me directly from this site or by phone at 425-898-9117.