A technology revolution is occurring, but few seem to recognize how important it is and what the consequences will be. I’ll bet you have heard about it but haven’t appreciated what it will mean to you. And it is happening rapidly. I would put it in a class almost with the internet. Some people are going to make fabulous fortunes from it.
The technology is virtual reality (VR). Yes, I know that the current talk is mostly only about computer gaming applications or use in training simulators, but the potential scope is vastly wider than that. Use of VR displays will create entirely new paradigms for education, entertainment, sports, sales and marketing, technical support and virtually any activity involving collaboration. Current limitations due to hardware size, cost and comfort are fast disappearing.
Take education for example. Teachers in VR-equipped classrooms, like this one using the Zeiss Cinemizer, can lead students on digital field trips to the Amazonian rain forest or they can walk the Great Wall of China. Students can fly weightlessly through the International Space Station or stroll leisurely through the Louvre. Medical students can get close-up views of actual operating procedures, at their own pace and desired viewpoint. In thousands of ways, students can put themselves in completely realistic situations as they watch professionals in the field. Some of this will be simulated, but eventually most will be reality. In other words, students will actually be there, seeing things as they truly are, not just as they are pictured or described. Personally, I would like to wander around and watch scientists at work at the Large Hadron Collider.
In entertainment, the revolution is well underway. At the most recent Sundance Festival, eleven VR films were shown. Everyone in the audience watched 3-D movies on their own simulated big screen, each with the best seat in the house so to speak. And it wasn’t actually necessary to be there at all. It would have worked equally well in your living room. Everyone can have court side seats for basketball games, not just in terms of viewing but with a reality that will give the feeling that you could walk right onto the court. The same is true for every sport. Would you like the thrill of mountain biking without the cost or risk? Quite likely this technology will cut into attendance figures at sporting events, but nothing new is cost-free.
I would enjoy a driver’s view of a few turns around Le Mans or the full experience of climbing Mt. Everest. Yes, you can see a film of such events but it is nothing remotely like a VR experience. Everyone can be there, essentially in person, when great events are transpiring. And also those that are not great. Would enthusiasm for military adventures be as high if people could live the experience of combat and see its horrific consequences?
Use of VR for training purposes has actually been underway for a long time. Pilots learn procedures for handling emergencies, soldiers practice battle tactics, and astronauts familiarize themselves with planned space walks as in this actual NASA VR trainer. Extension to more commonplace activities is fairly obvious.
Curiously, one of the problems yet to be solved is that the VR experience is too realistic! Some users experience disorientation or nausea due to “living” in two environments at once. Fortunately some innovative research is underway involving scanning the user and projecting his lifelike presence into the scenes so that one source of these issues will diminish.
In a few years, no one would think of booking at a resort without poking around your accommodations and checking the view or walking the grounds and inspecting the amenities. And similarly, considering almost any purchase can be far better accomplished in VR than just looking at advertising pictures as is now done. Trying clothes on using a VR screen is faster and can give viewpoints unattainable in the clothing store mirror.
Psychologists are already using VR to implement virtual body swapping so that subjects can experience racial bias first hand. This could be “Total Recall” in its infancy.
Some VR headsets incorporate a camera that can transmit the wearer’s view as a VR scene to a remote observer. You don’t have to be very imaginative to see how this can be used to help, guide, or instruct remotely. If this became ubiquitous, I can foresee entirely different and more effective ways that technical support could be supplied. Perhaps a plumber could offer remote hands-on guidance for household maintenance at a fraction of the price of a professional visit.
This commentary barely scratches the surface of the coming revolution. Some of what I have described may never come to pass, but the future will no doubt hold untold surprises.