I entered this in the SXSW Interactive 2016 David Carr Prize for Emerging Writers. I didn't win, but I am proud of this piece. Congratulations to the winner, Jaime Boust!
“In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.”
Famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz uttered these words to underscore the power of the camera. While we live in a time when cameras are everywhere, Stiglitz began his career in the 19th century when photography was a mere novelty. Photographs were not taken as seriously as other art forms such as paintings, sculptures, and music, and this drove Stieglitz to tirelessly labor for an increased appreciation of the pictures that cameras could produce.
We are now seeing the emergence of another medium that struggles to gain the respect accorded to established media forms: virtual reality (VR). While consumers have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to movies, television shows, and video games, VR has yet to present content compelling enough for mass adoption. However, VR is poised to make the leap from novelty to ubiquitous technology far faster and with wider implications than photography.
The evolution of VR in the next few years will offer exciting possibilities that will touch the lives of nearly every person on the planet. While we are in the early stages of what VR can offer, enough progress has been made to make predictions about what mature VR products will eventually make possible.
I believe that the evolution of VR has to achieve three P’s before the technology’s benefits can gain traction: Presence, Price, and Personal. The good news is that we have already unlocked the first two P’s.
Presence is a term used to describe the almost overwhelming feeling of “realness” when a person experiences VR. The product that showed us the possibility of presence was the Oculus Development Kit 1 (DK1). The DK1 was superior to previous VR products with its expanded field of view and improved resolution. By providing the interface through a headset tethered to a computer, VR became something that anyone could wear and become immersed in a realistic digital experience.
Samsung’s Gear VR demonstrated that VR could be delivered to the masses at an affordable price point. Although a Galaxy phone were required for the Gear VR to work, millions of those headsets were available to consumers, often subsidized by wireless carriers. The Gear VR demonstrated that virtual reality could be priced at a point that anyone who owned a smartphone could afford.
With presence and price now at the right levels, the next obstacle that VR must hurdle is the creation of personal experiences. VR applications for the next few years will continue to be mass produced for the general population. While the technology will rapidly develop, VR will have trouble crossing the “uncanny valley” that results from our brains refusing to fully believe the virtual experience. However, once VR can convincingly trick the human brain, the technology can then be tailored to individual tastes.
The ability to create truly individual VR experiences will be tightly coupled to the evolution of the physical form factor of VR devices. The current state of the art are headsets that, while portable, are still bulky. It’s difficult to predict how VR technology will evolve, but we do have a possible pattern in one of the most personal technologies available today: the artificial cardiac pacemaker.
The first pacemakers were invented in the 1920s and were large bulky devices that were immobile and had to be plugged into electrical outlets. Pacemaker technology progressed over the decades with the devices shrinking in size and gaining portable power supplies. By the 1950s, the devices were small enough to be externally placed on the body of patients. The 1960s marked the emergence of the first people with pacemakers implanted inside their bodies. Today, pacemakers are shrinking down to the size of a multivitamin.
The evolution of pacemakers from large machines that were tethered to their users to internal devices that no one, including the patient, can see offers a predictive path for VR technology. Initial implementations will probably take the form of goggles followed by contact lenses, but VR implants that interface directly with the brain will soon follow. When VR becomes integrated into the physical body of the user, that will lower the first barrier to the truly personal experience.
Another pattern we can take from the evolution of the pacemaker is opposition based on moral grounds. Scientists and medical professionals took pacemaker testing underground for most of the 1930s and 1940s due to complaints by groups who thought the devices would unnaturally prolong life. It’s possible that VR technology will also face the barrier of those who fear exposing people to “false worlds” where longstanding moral and ethical beliefs may be impossible to enforce. However, pacemakers now enjoy wide adoption, and it is my hope that, once the initial fear mongering subsides, VR technology will quickly outmaneuver those who oppose it based on religion or philosophy.
The next and final barrier will be the creation of VR experiences. These experiences will be many and diverse, but obvious examples are entertainment, sports, exploration, society, and education.
VR will transform the entertainment industry by changing content from passive in nature to active experiences. Instead of watching a two dimensional representation of a book, television show, or movie, consumers will be able to move inside the story and fully control the experience. Instead of being constrained by the camera angles, pans, and zooms selected by the director, VR will let users choose where they want to experience each scene. However, content creators won’t lose control. In fact, they can expand the story by placing events that can only be seen by viewers placed in a specific location who pay attention to a certain set of events. This will broaden storytelling by allowing multiple paths through the plot instead of one linear story.
Sporting events are now starting to be made available as VR experiences using current technology. However, future uses of VR will revolutionize many aspects of modern athletics. Most sports require the construction of seating areas for spectators ranging in complexity from simple stands to massive stadiums. Providing a way to view sporting events using VR will significantly reduce the investment in building spaces for spectators. Furthermore, the best seats, whether at mid-court or mid-field, will be able to support an almost unlimited number of customers who can all enjoy a premium experience. The sound of the sporting event will be provided by real time surround sound, and users can also chose friends around the world to privately join them during the event. VR will provide the experience of a private suite in an athletic arena to far more people than possible today. It’s also possible that VR will reverse the trend of building progressively bigger stadiums. Eventually, sporting events will require spaces not much bigger than the playing field.
The travel industry will also be radically changed by VR. Virtually any place on land, sea, or space will be accessible to anyone regardless of their age or level of physically ability. The Grand Canyon, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Pyramids, or even the surface of the Moon can be explored at a price that most consumers can afford. VR may even make space exploration easier by launching rovers with VR recording equipment to places like Mars to map the surface of the planet. These maps will be used to create immersive VR training sessions for astronauts on Earth well before they make the long journey to the Red Planet.
VR will also provide a way to bridge the differences that often divide our society. We live in a world of various privileges (gender, racial, physical ability, religion, etc.) which create inequalities in society. VR can provide people with privilege the opportunity to live without privilege. Men can literally experience what it is like to walk in a woman’s shoes, White people can understand the experience of people of color, and those blessed with the full function of their bodies can see how difficult it can be to have a debilitating physical handicap. VR may remove the “otherness” that is often the root cause of prejudice and societal strife. If we can be virtually exposed to the lived experiences of those different from us, then we may be able to embrace our shared humanity.
Another societal benefit of VR will be the ability to live out your true self. Some people feel that they were born in the wrong body and yearn to experience life in their true form. VR can provide a way for people to virtually reincarnate themselves as an expression of their inner self-image. Whether as a different race, gender, or species, VR can provide a way for individuals to enjoy the psychological benefits of true self-actualization. Therapists will find this aspect of VR to be a fertile proving ground for treating their patients by leveraging the ability to observe their behavior when exposed to realistic, albeit simulated, scenarios. It’s possible that cures for many mental diseases that we struggle to treat today may be discovered through the use of VR.
The field of education will also be revolutionized by VR. Middle school kids will experience historical recreations of events like the inauguration of past Presidents, speeches made by great orators of the past, and current events around the globe. Subjects like physics, chemistry, and biology will be illustrated by VR models of atoms, molecules, and anatomy. Pre-med students will virtually observe the world’s greatest surgeons no matter where they are in the world. VR will change the learning experience from a one way flow of information from teacher to student into an exciting exploration of topics and concepts.
While VR will transform many fields, the intersection of VR and other emerging technologies will provide the most profound changes. For example, when VR technology is combined with robotics, people who are gravely injured or born with extreme defects can be placed in humanoid machines that are controlled using VR interfaces. Other emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology will be augmented by the integration of human senses with VR technology.
I am excited about VR because it is one of the few transformational technologies that will be within the reach of ordinary people. As VR experiences become more personal, anyone can be immersed into any time or any place. The technology is very young, but, if VR advocates could borrow and slightly modify the words of Alfred Stieglitz, I think they will soon be able to make this statement:
“In VR there is an experience so pronounced that it becomes more real than reality.”