Virtual Reality (VR) is hot. The Oculus Rift headset is now shipping, and the HTC Vive is right behind. Soon they will be joined by headsets from Sony and others. It seems everyone is interested in VR and how it can be applied. The first and most obvious application is for gaming, but other uses are also being developed, from psychology therapies to virtual travel, education, medicine, and all forms of storytelling. And it's still only the early days, even though the basics of VR have been around for years. Now, the enabling computing and graphics technology is making virtual dreams possible.
But just what is possible? Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, recently said that we stand on the brink of a technological revolution, which he described as “ The Fourth Industrial Revolution“. Schwab went on to say that the resulting “transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.” He believes the speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent and that it's expanding at an exponential rate and will have dramatic impacts. There's little question now that this is true. Advances are escalating for a broad range of technologies, including ultra-high definition graphics, ambient computing, deep learning, VR, and augmented reality (AR).
While it's impossible to predict where this will lead, it's clear that we are witnessing the dawning of a new age. For example, the experiences provided by virtual reality are immeasurably more immersive than anything that's come before. Author Terence McKenna once said, “This is what virtual reality holds out to us — the possibility of walking into the constructs of the imagination.” If we can imagine it, it can come true. That's the promise of this new immersive computing age.
In the near future, man becomes the machine. Not so much in the sense of assimilation into a cyborg race, though Google futurist Ray Kurzweil in a CNN article made a prediction suggestive of that possibility. Instead, next-generation operating systems could more closely emulate human patterns of thought and interaction. So believes neuroscientist Meron Gribetz, who is also CEO of Meta, a company building “natural machines” using an “iOS of the mind.” As Forbes reported, Meron's Ted Talk and demo of the Meta 2 headset “wowed the audience.” Those who have tried a prototype of the headset report the experience as being a mix of Iron Man and Minority Report .
In keeping with Schwab's view that breakthroughs are taking place at an unprecedented speed, the innovation at Meta is hardly alone. Perhaps the most advanced immersive computing device on the near horizon is the upcoming Sulon Q, the world's first tether-free all-in-one headset that combines AR, VR, and spatial computing. Unlike the Meta headset that requires a cable to a host desktop or laptop PC, the Sulon Q has a computer built into the headset allowing for greater freedom of movement. In addition, it contains a multitude of sensors that promise real-time hand-tracking and environment mapping. This allows for AR imagery on top of what is essentially a video pass-through that creates an illusion that the computer-generated content is present and can interact with the real world to create a mixed reality.
Not to be outdone, Microsoft has one-upped itself by building on its untethered Hololens mixed-reality kit with the just announced “holoportation” capability as seen in this video. The company describes this as “a new type of 3-D capture technology that allows high-quality 3-D models of people to be reconstructed, compressed and transmitted anywhere in the world in real time.”
Potentially, this will enable users to “see, hear and interact with remote participants in 3D as if they are actually present in the same physical space.” Basically, holoportation is a simpler alternative to teleportation, using 3-D capture technology to beam 360-degree holograms of people or objects in real time to any space. When wearing a see-through Hololens visor, a person could interact with a realistic 3-D hologram of another person without ever stepping into the same room with them. As suggested by Fast Company, workaholic dads can use it to play with their kids while on a business trip, while remote workers could use it to make presentations at business meetings from across the country. Musicians could use it to stage virtual concerts, while actors could transport themselves into plays, even if they were in a different country. At a minimum, this could spell the end of today's remote conferencing technologies.
What both the Sulon Q and Hololens do is augment reality with virtual reality to create a mixed reality. Analyst Rob Enderle notes the best use of holoportation could be for documenting historic moments, such as Walt Disney opening Disneyland: “It would be a moment in history that could grace a museum or corporate lobby forever.” The technology could generate and transmit holograms similar to Princess Leia's “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi“ plea. Space opera fiction, at least a portion of the technology, is indeed quickly becoming reality.
How hot is VR and its immersive brethren? As the New York Times speculates, it could be that AR may be even bigger than VR. A Goldman Sachs research note claims about $3.5 billion in venture-capital investments went to VR and AR companies in 2014 and 2015. It projects a “base case” market valued at $80 billion between hardware and software opportunities for virtual and augmented reality by 2025.
As we enter this revolution, Schwab believes there has never been a time of greater promise, but notes too that it also brings peril. Technological change has always been disruptive. How mixed reality and other rapidly developing technologies are deployed is a work in progress, loosely directed by an amalgamation of governments and politicians, business and labor leaders, scientists, and entrepreneurs. Change brings the opportunity to shape technology to alter people's lives through improved connectivity, education, and healthcare. VR and holoportation is a good beginning. Let us hope the constructs of the imagination are benign.
Gary Grossman is a public relations and communications marketing executive with Edelman. He helps technology companies develop their story, leads roll-out strategy, content development, and project execution. Previously, he served as a systems engineer and senior technical consultant for HP.