In the 1966 science fiction film “Fantastic Voyage”, starring sex symbol Raquel Welch, audiences watched in amazement as doctors travelled inside a patient’s body to repair a brain injury. Today, 55 years later, such surgery can be practiced digitally, with medical personnel experiencing the procedure from both inside and outside of the patient’s body.
Fast-forward to 2021, and science fiction is well-positioned to become reality. As Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft says: “The future … will be driven by Quantum Computing, AI and XR".
There is no doubt about the emerging power of quantum computing and artificial intelligence in shaping our future, but what about XR?
XR, or extended reality, includes technologies like AR (augmented reality), VR (virtual reality) and MR (mixed reality, a hybrid of real and virtual worlds).
Virtual Reality is an interactive experience within a completely artificial 3-dimensional environment, where objects that reside in the real world are replicated by computer-generated perceptual information, sometimes across multiple senses. Augmented Reality is similar, except the objects that reside in the real environment are enhanced or modified.
For decades, XR has been the stuff of science fiction because it was either technologically impractical or unaffordable. That has changed, though not quite exponentially yet – but when it does, it will radically change the world in which we live. In this new world, XR will simulate reality to the point where one cannot tell the difference from actual reality, realizing the “mathematical wonderland” described by computer science pioneer and A.M. Turing Laureate Ivan Sutherland one year before “Fantastic Voyage” appeared in movie theaters.
More recently, Polygon’s somewhat frustrated Ben Kuchera has been quoted as saying “VR has been 5 minutes away from some kind of breakthrough for about 8 years”, while Atari Co-founder, Nolan Bushnell, believes that “We’re in the Pong stage of virtual reality”. Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has a more balanced perspective and sees beyond the technology’s unfulfilled promise:
“The (XR) tools today are primitive. And people aren’t using primitive tools because they prefer primitive tools. They’re using primitive tools because we’re still early on the journey to creating better tools.” (Mark Zuckerberg, Founder and CEO, Facebook)
We are starting to see technology make massive leaps and bounds, and its near future in VR and AR is incredibly interesting to behold.
The first place to examine this phenomena is in the military, where needs often lay the groundwork for the development of products and services that eventually make their way to the consumer. The Internet, after all, was first invented for military purposes. Today’s US Military clearly understands the advantage it can gain by investing in extended reality. Last Wednesday saw Microsoft win a contract worth up to $21.88 billion in the next 10 years to provide HoloLens headsets to the US Army. Imagine wearing a HoloLens that overlays navigation outputs, detects heat from otherwise darkness-obscured adversaries, situates enemies and allies on real-time maps, shows the aim for a weapon, and allows soldiers to share reconnaissance drone views. This is not only possible, it already exists -- greatly contributing to making soldiers safer and more effective in carrying out their duties. And that’s just the beginning … true to form, the Army is surely keeping other even more fantastic cards close to its chest.
With enterprise VR programs showing productivity improved by an average of 32% and AR training yielding a staggering 75% learning retention rate and a doubling of knowledge transfer, these statistics are too tantalizing to be ignored.
Outside of the Military and, by far, the greatest civilian adoption of VR and AR has been by gamers. Perhaps initially the most famous adventure of them all was Niantic’s Pokemon GO, which launched in 2016 and became a global cultural phenomena with an average of 90.5 million downloads per week in its early days … it’s hard to believe that was almost 5 years ago!
“Imagine the world in your own separate, permanent illusion and, within the illusion, living a life without war, a life that achieves your dreams. If you want to be the President, you can be the President. If you want to be Spiderman, you can be Spiderman. If you want powers, you can have them. If you had a bad day at school, you could go there and have a lot of fun with your friends in this open world.” (Theo, a 16 year old gamer)
In the non-gaming space, some uses are becoming commonplace, such as viewing a home for sale without ever stepping foot it in, trying on glasses without going into a store, and seeing how Ikea furniture will look in your home. Even better, why not create your own immersive digital NFT home and sell it for $500,000, like Toronto-based conceptual artist Krista Kim did for the first time in history just a few weeks ago?
“What can a body be when it is freed from physical restraints? What does identity mean when there are endless bits and bytes to express it?” (Amber Jae Slooten, Creative Director, The Fabricant)
There are many more interesting examples, a few of which are illustrated below:
This Mother Gave Birth Wearing a VR Headset and Says It Eased the Pain of Labor
Robert Kubica is F1 Team Sauber’s simulator driver. When Kimi Raikkonen or Antonio Giovinazzi are on the track, he works simultaneously on the Team’s simulator back in Switzerland so that, as challenges arise during Grand Prix practice sessions, he can evaluate solutions that can be immediately applied to the Team’s race cars.
Right now, we need much faster, more reliable internet connections, lower latency (the delay between an action and a response), and more sophisticated and less expensive hardware to fulfill the promised magic of VR and AR.
“We’re now building the best backend for the most frontend industry of all time.” (Alon Grinshpoon, Co-founder and CEO, echoAR)
The 50th anniversary of the release of the ground-breaking video game, Pong, will be in 2022. I challenge anyone to create an updated version that allows the user to be one of the paddles or the ball in a completely new, immersive environment as a testament to Allan Alcorn, the inventor of our beloved Pong.