Reality plus – the next “big thing”?

Since leaving University over 30 years ago I have worked in the Information Technology sector and have always been interested in how IT evolves, both driving and being driven by new and innovative technologies.  I’ve always been interested in thinking about how new technologies can be applied in the real world rather than in the detail of how they work.

I’m not a full-blown “futureologist” but I now have a strong personal opinion that Augmented Reality (“AR”) technology will, in the next 10-15 years, have as big an impact on society as the internet has had in the last 10-15 years.  I’ll explain why in a minute, but first….

Virtual Reality

Whilst there are a number of things in common between Virtual Reality (“VR”) and AR (both are heavily dependent on powerful computer processors for example) there are some very significant differences.

To use VR properly you have to wear a headset and, for some applications, hold a pair of controllers.  The headset uses a pair of screens (two physical screens in high-end headsets, a single screen split into two images otherwise) with lenses in front to allow you to focus and which fill your field of vision.  VR replaces everything you currently see with a new view of your surroundings – this can be real world (you can watch concerts as though you were sitting in the theatre or can go on a tightrope walk for example – YouTube has an official VR channel with hundreds of VR videos) or computer generated.  The key difference is that you have no freedom of movement in the real world VR environment – you can look all around you but you have to go where the camera went when the film was made.  Computer generated VR environments give you the opportunity to move around and to change the environment by, for example, shooting at it or blowing it up.

The term often used to describe the VR experience is “immersive” – and it is.  I don’t like heights much and if I use VR which involves looking down from a height my stomach lurches even though my brain knows that I am sitting in a chair with my feet on the floor.

VR has been around, in its simplest form, since 1962 when the “Sensorama” machine prototype was built.  This displayed film through a stereoscopic viewer, with the user sitting on a motional chair and even had fans which blew particular odours out in sync with the film.

Northern Man, Going Postal

The first VR headset with motion tracking was built in 1968, though the term “Virtual Reality” was not used until 1987.  Although there was no shortage of ideas or ambition for what could be done with VR (for example, the holodeck from Star Trek, the matrix) the stumbling blocks to widespread adoption of VR were always the cost of the headset and the lack of a single unifying standard technology.  The game changer for VR was the smartphone.  All of a sudden a lot of people were carrying a powerful computer with a high-definition display, so all that was needed was a headset to mount the phone in.

These are now widely available, ranging from the Google Cardboard one (literally just a sheet of cardboard which you fold into shape and a couple of lens) which costs a few quid up to plastic headsets with better quality lenses for £50+.  There are plenty of free apps for ios and android so you can give VR a go for a very low outlay.  Many phone apps will allow you to just watch a VR film on your phone without a headset – you lose the immersive aspect but can still look around you by moving your phone around (Jaunt VR is a good start point).

Northern Man, Going Postal

The main application for VR at the moment is gaming, though there is a growing pornography industry (so I’m told) and VR is increasingly being used for high-end applications such as architecture and product design (so you can walk around a building before construction starts or look at a car interior from the driver’s seat).  Healthcare is also a potential market, with stress levels in bed-bound patients being shown to decrease after a spell on a virtual beach or a virtual country walk.

Augmented Reality

The key difference between AR and VR is that with AR you still look at the real world, just with additional information or images overlaid on it.  The first AR headset was invented in 1968 and was so heavy it was suspended from the ceiling by a thick cable.  The term “Augmented Reality” was coined in 1990 and the first mass use of AR was in 1996 when a US TV network created a “virtual hockey puck” by using a computer to track the actual ice hockey puck and overlay a brighter colour onto it to make it easier to see.  Viewers found this distracting so it was dropped pretty quickly.  In 1998 a more enduring bit of AR was introduced with the creation of the virtual 10-yard line for American football games, which is still used today.

As with VR the increased power and display quality of the smartphone has triggered a step change.  If you have Google Translate on your phone then you already have a useful AR application.  You may not have noticed, but there is a small camera icon on the screen where you usually type text to be translated.  Click on this and then point your camera at a screen, road sign or restaurant menu to translate what you see in real time – try it.

Google had a very public failure in AR with the ill-fated Google Glass project.  This involved the user wearing a special headset where information could be projected onto a small screen in front of the user’s eye, with the system using a camera on the headset to understand what the user was looking at and to display relevant information.  It turns out that members of the public don’t like the idea of being filmed by total strangers and Google Glass wearers were often met with suspicion or outright hostility.  The original Google Glass headset went out of production in January 2015 while Google worked on a less obtrusive version with better functionality.  The Google Glass Enterprise Edition was launched in July 2017 (personally I still think it looks too weird)

Northern Man, Going Postal

Why back AR over VR?

Although both technologies are impressive I think that AR will be the dominant future technology, with VR remaining a novelty and mainly for recreational use (ahem).  Tim Cook (the CEO of Apple) recently said “AR has the ability to amplify human performance instead of isolating humans. So I am a huge, huge believer in AR.”

All IT-related technologies share a common behaviour – they get smaller, lighter, more efficient, more powerful and cheaper over time.  The next generation of AR-enabled glasses will be indistinguishable from ordinary glasses, removing the social barrier.  Google is already working on contact lenses capable of displaying information.

The key thing for me about AR is just how far-reaching its applications are.  Here are a few examples:

Translation

– imagine walking around with glasses which translate every word of a foreign language that you look at to your language.  Your glasses will also translate the spoken language (the legs of the current Google Glasses have bone induction devices so they can do things like read emails and you hear the sound in your head but nobody around you hears a thing).  If you have children interested in becoming language teachers I would suggest an alternative career – within the next 10-15 years learning a foreign language will be a thing of the past in any technologically advanced nation.

Engineering

– companies like Honda, VW and Rolls-Royce (the aero engine people) already use AR-enabled tablets to help their engineers by highlighting key parts and providing video instructions on what to do, improving quality and saving time (it’s a tricky job climbing in and out of a jet engine and you don’t want to do it any more often than you need to).

Healthcare

– the potential uses here are massive.  Clinical trials have already shown some success in alleviating some symptoms of autism.  An app already exists which can mitigate the symptoms of some degenerative eye diseases by increasing the brightness of certain colours as the eye’s ability to register them gradually declines.  There is an app for people with memory problems, such as those caused by Alzheimer’s disease, where you (for example) say “keys” as you put your keys down.  The app now knows where your keys are in relation to other objects in the room so when you say “find keys” and look around you see a large arrow pointing down to the spot where you put them.

There are also uses for healthcare practitioners, especially when training, as relevant information can be overlaid on, for example, an organ during surgery (“This side up.  Use no hooks”)

Automotive

Heads up displays are already available on many cars but some manufacturers are working on augmented windscreens which will highlight hazards and which will, using the laser mapping needed for automative driving, show a daytime view of the road ahead at nighttime.

Tourism

AR can bring history to life.  How do you fancy sitting in the Coliseum and seeing what it looked like when the games were on?  How about walking around Versailles and having members of the court walking along side you pointing out key features of the building and gardens?  How about being able to see through the body of an aircraft in flight?

Customer services and retail

With a combination of AR and facial recognition if you pay a visit to your bank then in the time between you walking through the door and getting to an assistant on the floor they will know who you are, which products you have, how you like to be greeted, whether or not this is a regular visit etc.  They could also know that you are not a customer and you have a history of bank robbery.

You will soon be able to see how clothes will look on you just by standing in front of an augmented mirror, where the clothes move with you rather than being a static image.

How about walking round a supermarket with an app telling you which products are cheaper elsewhere as you look at them and which items from your shopping list you haven’t yet put in your basket?

The new class divide

Just as we now have a generation who cannot survive without checking their smartphone every minute and who would be unable to exist at all if you got rid of it so we will, in the not too distant future, have a class of people who are, from an informational point of view, augmented.  The question then is – why would these people willingly “downgrade” themselves back to the level of cis-humans?

I think we will end up with a slice of the population who will become completely dependent on their augmented view of the world, to the point where they would be unable to function without it.  They will have checked out of reality and they will never check back in.
 

© Northern Man 2018
 

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