Virtual reality. Will it stick this time?

My first job was in missile design and for a year, the lab I worked in was a giant bra-shaped building, two massive domes joined by a short link-way that had been taken out of use years earlier. The domes had been used by soldiers to fire simulated missiles at simulated planes, and were built in the 1960s. One dome had a hydraulic moving platform to simulate firing from a ship. The entire dome surface was used as a screen to show the plane and missile. The missile canisters held by the soldier were counterweighted with a release mechanism coordinated to the fire instruction and the soldier’s headphones would produce a corresponding loud blast to accompany the physical weight change at launch so that they would feel as full a range of sensation experienced by a real soldier on a real battlefield as possible. The missile trajectory and control interface was simulated by analog computers. So virtual reality may have hit the civilian world around 1990 but it was in use several decades earlier in military world. In 1984, we even considered using our advancing computers to create what we called waking dreaming, simulating any chosen experience for leisure. Jaron Lanier has somehow been credited with inventing VR, and he contributed to its naming, but the fact is he ‘invented’ it several decades after it was already in common use and after the concepts were already pretty well established.

I wrote a paper in 1991 based on BT’s VR research in which I made my biggest ever futurology mistake. I worked out the number crunching requirements and pronounced that VR would overtake TV as an entertainment medium around 2000. I need hardly point out that I was wrong. I have often considered why it didn’t happen the way I thought it would. On one front, we did get the entertainment of messing around in 3D worlds, and it is the basis of almost all computer gaming now. So that happened just fine, it just didn’t use stereo vision to convey immersion. It turned out that the immersion is good enough on a TV or PC screen.

Also, in the early 1990s, just as IT companies may have been considering making VR headsets, the class action law suit became very popular, and some of those were based on very tenuous connections to real cause and effect, and meanwhile some VR headset users were reporting eye strain or disorientation. I imagine that the lawyers in those IT companies would be thinking of every teenager that develops any eye problem suing them just in case it might have been caused in part by use of their headset. Those issues plus the engineering difficulties of commercialising manufacture of good quality displays probably were enough to kill VR.

However, I later enjoyed many a simulator ride at Disney and Universal. One such ride allowed me to design my own roller coaster with twists and loops and then ride it in a simulator. It was especially enjoyable. The pull of simulator rides remains powerful.  Playing a game on an xbox is fun, but doesn’t compare with a simulator ride.

I think much of the future of VR lies in simulators where it already thrives. They can go further still. Tethered simulators can throw you around a bit but can’t manage the same range of experience that you can get on a roller coaster. Imagine using a roller coaster where you see the path ahead via a screen. As your cart reaches the top of a hill, the track apparently collapses and you see yourself hurtling towards certain death. That would scare the hell out of me. Combining the g-forces that you can get on a roller coaster with imaginative visual effects delivered via a headset would provide the ultimate experience.

Compare that with using a nice visor on its own. Sure, you can walk around an interesting object like a space station, or enjoy more immersive gaming, or you can co-design molecules. That sort of app has been used for many years in research labs anyway. Or you can train people in health and safety without exposing them to real danger. But where’s the fun? Where’s the big advantage over TV-based gaming? 3D has pretty much failed yet again for TV and movies, and hasn’t made much impact in gaming yet. Do we really think that adding a VR headset will change it all, even though 3D glasses didn’t?

I was a great believer in VR. With the active contact lens, it can be ultra-light-weight and minimally invasive while ultra-realistic. Adding active skin interfacing to the nervous system to convey physical sensation will eventually help too. But unless plain old VR it is accompanied by stimulation of the other senses, just as a simulator does, I fear the current batch of VR enthusiasts are just repeating the same mistakes I made over twenty years ago. I always knew what you could do with it and that the displays would get near perfect one day and I got carried away with excitement over the potential. That’s what caused my error. Beware you don’t make the same one. This could well be just another big flop. I hope it isn’t though.

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