By: William Bryk
The average teen in the United States spends 9 hours a day using technological media (1). That statistic might have been shocking 10 years ago, but nowadays we skim it and then quickly move on to the next trending article on BuzzFeed. The onslaught typically begins in the morning. You open your eyes, and you immediately feel the urge to check the phone that you checked just 8 hours before. It then continues into our classrooms, our dorm rooms, city streets, airport terminals, meals with family, and chats with friends. From the elderly glued to the TV to adults poking at smartphones to students juggling 20 open tabs to children forgoing friends for animated characters, the epidemic is rampant in our society. When Harvard’s Cambridge campus lost power in early October and students could not access their precious WiFi—that portal to the virtual realm—the ensuing chaos had students speaking in apocalyptic terms. The modern Homo sapiens is completely addicted to electronic media.
In the past few years, a new technology has emerged that threatens to escalate this obsession from a lifestyle to life itself. Currently, our smartphones, tablets, and TV’s act as doorways from our physical reality with its atoms, colors, and senses to a simulated reality with its corresponding bits, pixels, and sensors. When watching a YouTube video on our smartphones, we stand in the multi-dimensional reality we were born into while peeking into a 2-dimensional fake reality on a screen. Virtual reality (VR) technology, as the name suggests, reverses this scenario. With a VR headset covering our eyes and ears, we are pinned in front of a 2-dimensional fake reality on a screen, which tricks our mind into thinking that we are peeking into a multi-dimensional reality. From the perspective of the headset wearer, it is a reality no less real than the physical world.
EXPLORING NEW REALITIES
Developments in the field of simulated worlds have branched into two separate technologies. The first is virtual reality, and the second is augmented reality, often referred to as mixed reality (MR). In virtual reality, the user wears a headset that presents a different computer image to each eye, blocking out all external light. These images present a simulated scene from two different angles to mimic the way eyes normally see objects. The two images are just wide enough to cover the more than 100-degree field of human vision; as a result, the user is completely immersed. As the user moves his or her head, the headset changes the two images to simulate what one would see at any given head angle (2). To film media content that is compatible with VR, you need a special camera that takes light from every direction in 3-dimensional space.
Humans have long desired a device capable of visually transporting them to another world without actual movement. Early panoramic paintings in the 19th century and the stereoscope in the 1930’s both flirted with tricking the brain into seeing depth where there was not. But the virtual reality era really could not have begun until computer technology enabled a visual experience so vivid that it tricks the brain continuously. In the 1960’s, as industrial computers became widespread, Ivan Sutherland built what is widely considered to be the first VR headset (3). Unfortunately, it was so heavy it needed to be hung from the ceiling, making it impractical as a consumer product. VR gained excitement in the 1990’s with Nintendo and Sega introducing some of the first consumer VR headsets, but the lack of color and advanced graphics made for uncomfortable gameplay (4). It was not until Palmer Luckey hacked together a VR headset in his late teens, making use of recent advances in computational power and sensor accuracy, that the tremendous consumer potential of the technology was realized. In 2014, Facebook purchased Luckey’s VR technology for $2 billion, and virtual reality was at once thrown into the limelight (5).
Luckey’s Oculus Rift headset and others like it—HTC Vive, Samsung’s Gear VR, PlayStation VR—have begun a revolution in the tech world. Their appeal is understandable. Instead of watching a YouTube video, you can be inside it. Instead of FaceTiming with your mom, you can have a virtual discussion in the same room (as long as you both have VR cameras). You can experience what it’s like to live on other planets, visit a glacier in southern Antarctica, and fly like a bird. With VR, you can become the most interesting person in the world in one reality despite being collapsed on a sofa with half-eaten chips lying across your stomach in another. Though there are some concerns with VR, such as headaches after long exposure, headsets will certainly advance to avoid these problems.
Flying like a bird is something I actually got the chance to try out at an exhibit called “Birdly” that premiered in Cambridge last December. You are strapped down to a winged shaped structure with a fan blowing in your face. You put on a VR headset, and you are suddenly transported to the top of a skyscraper in NYC. Look to your right and left and you can see your two wings, with NYC in the background. As I jumped off the building and learned how to fly by flapping my wings (hands), the combined visual and sensory experience had me truly feeling like a bird, something humans have wondered about for eons. At some point during the experience, I forgot I was even a human. When they took the headset off, I felt puzzled as though I had left my world and arrived in a different one, while all the audience saw was me putting on and then taking off a goofy looking headset. The possibilities for VR are truly only limited by our abilities to imagine and craft realities beyond our own experience.
MIXING IT UP
Mixed reality is a whole other beast. This technology is one that is not quite full virtual reality and not quite normal reality, hence the name. In mixed reality, rather than cover up your field of view with simulated images, your field of view is instead overlaid with holograms. Holograms have always been a favorite of science fiction, and have also been non-fiction for decades. What has recently caught the world by surprise, however, is the sudden leap in technology previewed in two mixed reality consumer products: Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap.
In both these products, the consumer will wear some sort of transparent headset, whether it is a full headset in the case of HoloLens or a currently unrevealed wearable in the case of Magic Leap. These products display detailed 3D virtual objects interacting within the user’s physical world. The objects do not simply appear without connection to the objects in the room. Incredibly, both technologies create a 3D map of the items in the user’s room, such as chairs, tables, and walls. The virtual objects then interact with those items as physical objects would. For example, you can swing around a holographic fly swatter with just your hands trying to smack a virtual spider that is crawling along the objects in your room! With HoloLens, the holographic objects are projected onto the transparent film in front of the user’s eyes. With Magic Leap, the holographic objects will be projected directly onto the user’s retina. Magic Leap claims to have achieved a breakthrough with their product that makes for a mixed reality greater than anything before it, but it is a secretive company that has yet to release a product demo beyond teaser trailers.
Watching video previews of these two technologies is all it takes to grasp how exotic this form of media will be. In a HoloLens demo, the user summons a hologram of a football game, with a 3-foot long field and little 4-inch people running around tackling each other (6). The user takes this simulated game and places it on his dining room table. He pokes and analyzes the game from all angles, creating a perspective of a football match unlike anything anyone anywhere has come close to experiencing. In a Magic Leap demo video, the viewer, presumably wearing the headset, sits in an auditorium full of middle school students. All of a sudden, a massive whale jumps out of the gym floor, splashes huge waves around the gym walls, does a little spin, and dives back into the floor (7). Had I not been aware that whales don’t normally spring out of gym floors, I would have believed that the whale was really there. That’s how real mixed reality can become, according to Magic Leap. As one Microsoft commercial puts it, when any reality we dream of can be projected onto the world, “you can change the world you see” (8).
THE NEXT FRONTIER
With technologies capable of presenting a whole new medium for creativity and design, it is not surprising that many companies are investing heavily in virtual and mixed reality. Facebook’s 2 billion dollar investment in Oculus Rift, Google’s investment of 540 million dollars in Magic Leap, and Microsoft’s massive investment in HoloLens development are just a few examples. TechCrunch forecasts that the MR/VR market could hit 150 billion dollars by 2020 (9). Many have compared the current state of virtual and mixed reality to the state of the smartphone market before the iPhone, expecting the technologies to explode in popularity once companies and consumers recognize the full range of applications.
But the societal effects of virtual and mixed reality extend much farther than those of the smartphone. Gaming is the first industry to be disrupted. We no longer have to watch an animated character fire onto our enemies in a Call of Duty video game battle. The user can now strap on a VR headset, take a gun controller, and instead physically join the battle. In the coming years, workers from all disciplines, including engineers, surgeons, designers, construction managers, artists, and educators, will likely follow the VR/ MR trend. A whole generation will recognize the advantages of the technology, such as an MR engineering design that can be collectively viewed in a meeting or a VR perspective of ancient Rome for a fourth grade classroom. In one HoloLens demo, an architectural designer walks into an empty abandoned space needing renovation. She straps on a HoloLens, and immediately imports complete holographic designs for the room, moving holographic chairs and tables around with just a quick finger swipe (10).
These are some of the obvious ways VR and MR technologies will initially alter society. However, once these devices reach the hands of millions of people, there will undoubtedly be a slew of new applications, the effects of which cannot be predicted. This is exactly what happened after the first smartphones came onto the market. The full potential of smartphones was only realized once enough people owned them. It was this mass adoption that enabled a wave of innovations that completely transformed the flow and power of information. The very same thing could happen when VR and MR are adopted worldwide, except that the flow will consist not of information and apps, but of vivid experiences and perspectives.
Of course, putting a smartphone in the hands of each person did not come without a social cost. Even though these technological devices give us a great deal of power, they have also turned us into technological zombies, to some extent, who have far less time for basic human behavior such as face to face contact and self-reflection. And if teens spend 9 hours a day on technological media, what will they do with a much more compelling VR or MR product that becomes widely adopted? Given how exciting these new devices will be, it is not difficult to imagine that much of the public could wear these headsets the entire day. Today’s conversations are often interrupted by the buzzing of a smartphone, but in a few years our conversations might be overloaded with interruptions and distractions from the lens of our headset. While some might view wearing a Magic Leap-type device daily as a ticket to the sci-fi future we’ve been waiting for, others see humanity on course for a meaningless technological wasteland.
AN EXISTENTIAL CHOICE
In the future, we might become so addicted to virtual reality that it will actually replace reality. VR technology could advance to the point that living out our lives in the virtual world would be superior to living in our normal reality. In fact, this idea is one proposed solution to the Fermi Paradox. The Fermi Paradox asks why there is no evidence of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations colonizing the universe if there are trillions upon trillions of planets, many of which could have evolved intelligent life. One somewhat frightening solution is that when a civilization becomes advanced enough to simulate virtual realities, the civilization chooses to plug into the simulated reality forever. These supposed extraterrestrials make the choice to forgo the reality they were born into, with all its constraining physical laws and inconvenient stellar distances, for a better one in which we can craft our own physical laws and superpowers. It seems our species might have to make a similar choice pretty soon.
Our relationship with technology has been progressing toward this moment for a century, making us more and more connected to our devices. First came the television, then the personal computer, then the smartphone, and now MR and VR. With our technology for simulating reality continuously marching forward, we could at some point have available to us any reality we can dream of at the press of a button. The question is: should we press it?
Will Bryk ‘19 is a sophomore in Leverett House.
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Categories: fall 2016