VIRTUAL AND AUGMENTED REALITY ‘KINDA SUCKS’

 

Recently, after a panel conversation on virtual reality documentaries someone emerged from the audience and expressed his disappointment in the quality of available VR hardware. It was too pixelated and made him dizzy he opined. He then added that he didn’t see how this could catch on for documentaries (or anything other than first person shooters), as it takes away the ability from the director to focus the viewer’s attention a specific subject, in a specific place.

On other occasions I was asked if I believed AR and VR were suitable for anything else than the gaming industry. And even if they were, isn’t the quality of mobile AR rendering and VR resolution a huge drawback?

Honestly it was difficult to come up with the right answer. Obviously a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ wouldn’t have helped nor would listing all the ways and industries I think both technologies will prove useful. I knew how deeply I disagreed but I had to find a convincing way to explain what I really think of the matter.

This, in fact, is a complex question, therefore the answer can be very complex too. In the past years though, I found the following analogy very useful:

In 1926, when Scottish inventor John Logie Baird was experimenting with his ”TV” and he finally managed to make his business partner’s portrait appear, I bet he was the happiest person on this planet. So let’s have a look at the illustration below and imagine we had to watch our favourite show in such quality.

Looking back it’s easy to imagine why many were less than enthused and continued to suggest it would “never catch on”. But little did Baird know that his invention would render Netflix possible, or how 30 Rock would tower above Manhattan as the pinnacle of a multi-billion dollar industry. This works the other way around as well: imagine a world with affordable ‘million K’ home cinema systems in every home and only Fox news to watch - as terrifying a concept as that may be.

The first known photograph of a moving image produced by Baird's "televisor", circa 1926 (The subject is Baird's business partner Oliver Hutchinson)

The first known photograph of a moving image produced by Baird's "televisor", circa 1926 (The subject is Baird's business partner Oliver Hutchinson)

What inventors like Baird and the many many other pioneers of engineering across the world created was a new medium. A new way of creating, delivering and consuming content.

I would love to go back in time — preferably in a DeLorean of course — and ask them the big questions we all face when creating something new: what do you think this is good for? The image is blurry and tiny, we can hardly see it at all and there is no sound. Let alone asking them the big question: “what problem does it solve?”.

I see the future of Augmented or Virtual Reality in a very similar way. There will be new, as yet unknown, ways to create content for this media. The entire method of shooting or creating broadcast content will change. The equipment will be different, the approach will have to be different, and there will be new ways of directing the audience’s attention as and when needed. But I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future every movie would be a different experience to everyone based on what they were paying attention to during the screening. If ‘screening’ will be the word for it by then.

Samsung’s freshly announced GearVR 360 Camera

Samsung’s freshly announced GearVR 360 Camera

As for Augmented Reality, it’s also ‘just’ a new way of displaying content: mixed with the real world we see around us. Sounds simple enough, yet it has the potential to revolutionise industries. And not only gaming and entertainment. Enabling live visual feedback, it has the potential to revolutionise manufacturing products. The car industry, for example, is heading toward a level of customisation that actually renders Mr. Ford’s vision dated. With the current approach an assembly line can manufacture only a couple different engine types, but with live instructions broadcast to the workforce can process 15-20 or even more different types without having participate in expensive and time consuming training.

In fact the ethereal opportunities that augmented reality offers are what, in many ways, holds it back from mainstream understanding and what ultimately gives it the feeling of the “televisor” in 1926. In 2016 its current hardware and software limitations are crude, often rudimentary in their construction, a state of play recently encapsulated perfectly by John Riccitello, CEO of Unity who described 2016 as AR and VR’s “duct tape and twine” year.

Yet within that blurry, pixelated vision lays a medium that very likely transcends what most of us currently comprehend in terms of “digital consumption”. A medium that offers limitless real world potential when placed in the hands of millions of everyday users to help empower their work and play.

A “user interface for the world” might seem a far fetched vision right now but then so did the “televisor” in 1926.