VR and AR: a reality check
When it comes to AV, VR is often seen as the Holy Grail of immersive entertainment and with recent developments in technology, it might be a reality in the very near future. Jacob Harris reports.
Virtual reality (VR), and to a lesser degree augmented reality (AR), have occupied a space on the periphery of the home entertainment market for some time. Now, the technologies that underpin the platforms have become significantly cheaper and more robust leaving both VR and AR poised to make a significant impact on the industry in the near future.
Although imminent VR offerings from the likes of Oculus Rift and Sony are predominantly focused on gaming, it is predicted that within the next few years VR will play a major part in home entertainment more broadly.
Because AR requires more processing power than VR, it has further to go on the development curve but may well be the market leader in the long term with some estimates valuing the 2020 global markets at $US120 billion and $US30 billion respectively.
AV’s drug of choice
VR’s ability to provide a convincing immersive experience has been clear to developers for some time and is, in large, key to the platform’s efficacy and appeal.
Research has shown that our brains respond to stimuli from an immersive virtual environment in ways that mimic actual experiences, which has led to VR being used to train professionals in fields from space travel to surgery with great success. From a home entertainment perspective, VR promises to provide an experience that is significantly more impactful than a traditional 2D screen can provide.
“VR will eventually play a huge role in home entertainment, starting with a modest role this year,” says well known US integrator and anthropologist Rich Green.
“It will take about two years before significant numbers of VR headsets and commercial content become profitable at larger scales. That said, there is quite a lot of long-form narrative content in development including 360º movies that cause traditional film directors to lose control of the guided experience they have become accustomed to. It’s a new medium with massive potential to push into unexplored forms of expression and art.”
As an integrator, Rich is naturally excited about VR but he also fears that on the road to mainstream adoption we’ll see crude and highly manipulative gaming content take the lead in terms of generating profit for developers. Although he is hopeful we’ll see more cultured content gain a similarly profitable standing eventually, the propensity for VR to influence its users is of real concern.
In the early 1990s, US company WorldViz developed VR technologies to conduct research into human perception and behaviour at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“There is research that shows if you put someone in a virtual space you can illicit certain physiological responses from them. So there is a lot of interest in the application of VR for treating conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” says WorldViz marketing and communications coordinator Kristofer Pitzek.
“It’s called ‘cognitive behavioral therapy’ and is essentially walking people through certain scenarios (for example, a war veteran might be put in a virtual war zone environment) and then walked through that situation to help them to develop coping mechanisms.”
Of course, using technology to aid in research or the delivery of health treatments is to be applauded and there’s no reason that same technology shouldn’t then be used to create a compelling entertainment experience. But any platform that has the ability to illicit physiological responses from its user should be approached responsibly and with the appropriate degree of caution.
“VR can be as addictive as crack cocaine and about as difficult to resist,” Rich says.
“The business model will be based on persuasion, which is the core component of ‘consumer engagement.’ It all boils down to creating desire so people spend more money.
“VR reaches the reptile brain – the instinctive brain that most people have very little control of. It has the potential to persuade people to do outrageous things they would never have thought of otherwise.
“Frankly, it scares me. Once strapped into a convincing VR experience, a user can be brainwashed. Of course, depending on the intent of VR authors the experience can be a very positive one or a very bad one.”
At first glance, terms like ‘addiction’ and ‘brainwashing’ might seem like overstatements. But when you consider the compulsion many people feel to constantly check their smart phones, or hide out in a dark room for hours playing games like World of Warcraft the propensity for technology to be addictive is pretty much a given.
Imagine being completely immersed in a photo-realistic environment equipped with eye tracking technologies to create a convincing illusion of personal interaction and eye contact and you begin to understand how compelling VR could potentially be.
But this is not an attempt to cast VR in a negative light – after all, if we dismissed everything that had the potential to be addictive or influential the world would be a very dull place. In fact, it is VR’s ability to addict and convince its users that gives it the potential to deliver such a cogent entertainment experience.
According to Rich, the long-term breakthrough will happen when we overcome the limitations of personal headsets and enter the more familiar territory of shared spaces that enable long-form narrative, educational and interactive gaming experiences for more than one person.
Enabling several people in the same room to enjoy shared VR experiences without wearing headsets is where VR gets really exciting for the custom installation industry. Rich envisions special rooms with very high-resolution 3D-capable video on all surfaces, including the ceiling and floor. These immersion ‘caves’ have been around for many years and are used for military simulations and in scientific research.
“I’m insanely excited by the prospect of designing and creating immersive VR rooms that take the place of traditional home theatres,” he says.
“Initially, they will be extremely hard to do well, and that is our opportunity.
“But the shared experiences I envisage are not purely VR. There will be objects and features in the room to interact with, so a better description would be mixed realty (MR). It’s easy to imagine sophisticated full-motion surface mapped video mixed with the holographic illusions of AR.”
Like VR, AR is set to experience widespread adoption in the near future. In the past, offerings that have been aimed directly at consumers, such as Google Glass, have failed spectacularly and it seems fairly evident that the general public still isn’t ready to be interacting with people wearing AR headsets in day-to-day life.
“Anytime you introduce AR into social interactions, you are creating a separation between people. You really can’t make eye contact anymore,” Rich says.
“It’s anti-social, albeit less so than VR where you are completely cut off. Still, AR in headsets is really interesting and I think Microsoft Hololens, for example, is going to have a large impact on how people interact with data. You just don’t want to have a conversation with someone who is wearing one. It’s unnerving because you never really know if they are paying attention to you.
“Google has not given up though, it is hiring VR hardware engineers and its $US500 million+ investment in Magic Leap indicates that AR is still very much on its agenda.”
Many companies are investing heavily in AR and several major players are on the verge of commercially releasing AR headsets in coming months. It would seem that while we may not be ready to have AR as a part of our social lives, its applications for industry might give the platform the foothold it needs to get us acclimatised to it.
“Google Glass proved that consumer applications have too many hurdles right now. But I think people are going to get exposed to the technology and really start to understand how it can provide a better, more interesting entertainment experience,” says Epson Movario product manager Eric Mizufuka.
“While VR headsets are entering the mass market over the next two years or so, AR devices are currently seeing uptake in a lot of enterprise and some niche opportunities.
“For mainstream adoption it’s just going to take a little bit of time. I think the fact that VR is hitting the mainstream now – which is kind of a less technically complex problem to solve when it’s a 100% digital experience – is great for us because now we have developers that are used to building 3D, 360º environments which is the core skill set required to succeed with AR applications and devices.”
Epson’s Movario AR headset has been commercially available for some time and is being used in enterprise for a range of applications. These include training applications to create 3D digital overlays on complex equipment and also real-time data visualisation.
“A couple of our key partners are doing some interesting things in medicine. We’ve got a spinal surgeon that just got a pilot approved at Stanford University to do spinal surgeries using the smart glasses to effectively see under the skin in order to minimise scarring,” says Eric.
“It’s leveraging a $US1 million piece of equipment built by Medtronic. The machine is limiting in the respect that the doctor has to look at a screen over his left shoulder and then look back to the patient to move his tools and then look over his shoulder again to see where the tools are underneath the skin. So our glasses are using a lot of data from that machine to render it in the doctor’s field of view.”
AR definitely has a much larger potential market than VR because the user is still aware of the physical environment around them, giving the platform a much wider scope for applications. However, in the short term, VR certainly seems positioned to see far greater uptake in home entertainment with AR relegated to fulfilling industry-related functions.
“It will probably be at least five years before uptake [of either platform] reaches mainstream proportions,” Rich says.
“We have a huge population of ageing baby boomers who most likely won’t take to the technology because their reality is TV.
“Newer generations, more familiar the culture of gaming, will take to it in a heartbeat. They will build homes, raise families and spend money on AR, VR and eventually MR rooms. AR headsets will be outrageously cool in immersive, multi-modal, shared VR rooms. That’s the end game in home entertainment as far as I’m concerned.”