I first read Robert A. Heinlein’s 1939 short story “Misfit” when I was a teenager just getting into science fiction, and while I’ve long forgotten most of the story, one image has always stuck in my mind – the scene in which the captain straps himself into the saddle of the “ponderous integral calculator” in order to compute a spaceship’s orbit. Nowadays, I carry a phone in my pocket that’s easily a billion times more powerful than that calculator, and every couple of years I casually replace it with a better one.
That’s just one of the changes in digital technology over the last 77 years that have extended far into the realm of what would once have been considered science fiction, if not fantasy. Milestones along the way included ENIAC, the IBM PC, and the iPhone. The evolution of those platforms fundamentally changed how we work, play, and communicate, across the spectrum from spreadsheets to messaging to video games to social networking.
Monday – March 28, 2016 – marked another milestone, and a first step into realms that feel even more like science fiction. Despite all the movies, books, and hype about virtual reality over the decades, the dream of high-quality, immersive VR has only just arrived. Oculus Rift is the first consumer VR headset capable of delivering true presence – the deeply convincing sense that you have been teleported to another place. And as magical as VR has become, this is only the beginning of a new journey, one that has the potential to change the world and our relationship with technology more than anything that has come before.
If that sounds a tad hyperbolic, consider this: the human perceptual system has evolved to capture and process massive amounts of data from our environment, but every form of communication until today has used only a small fraction of that capability, the equivalent of sipping information through a straw. Every medium, from books to video games, provides limited descriptions, from which we have to reconstruct the full experience in our minds, losing the immersive power of reality in the process. When we see Neo look down from a ledge in the Matrix, we may get some sense of vertigo, but no one would equate it to the actual experience of standing on the edge of a thousand-foot drop.
Stand on a ledge in a Rift, and you’ll instantly understand why VR is fundamentally different. You will in fact feel like you’re on the edge of a thousand-foot drop – and, if you’re like me, you’ll instantly take a reflexive step back. There’s no interpretation or reconstruction involved in VR; the experience is as visceral and direct as the real world.
The only way to truly grasp how transformative VR can be is to experience it. VR opens the door to using the full power of our perceptual capabilities to interact with digital information. It’s a difference of kind rather than degree; VR is a substrate that subsumes all previous communications channels, every one of which can be implemented within VR. Taken to its logical conclusion, virtual reality is the ultimate limit to what we are capable of experiencing.
We won’t be anywhere near that limit for decades at best, but VR will likely have a major impact on our lives much sooner than that. Think of how transformative word processing, video games, and social networks have been, and then extend that to virtual workspaces, fully immersive entertainment, and virtual worlds shared with people from around the globe. Imagine that five to ten years from now, instead of Skyping, you and a friend chat at a table on a virtual Piazza Navona, pulling up screens, holograms, and whiteboards as needed, then teleport to Yankee Stadium to catch a game. That’s certainly within the realm of possibility, although getting there will require time and a great deal of research and innovative technology, in areas ranging from displays to computer vision to perception, and much more.
Perhaps the most important problem yet to be solved is figuring out how to represent real people convincingly in VR, in all their uniqueness. Other people are what we are most highly tuned to, because they are what we care about most – and for that same reason, representing them believably is one of the greatest challenges. In the long run, once virtual humans are as individually quirky and recognizable as real humans, VR will be the most social experience ever, allowing people anywhere on the planet to share virtually any imaginable experience.
It will take many years to fully realize that vision, but today is the first step on the virtual path, and with that, the world has changed forever. When Mauchly and Eckert turned on ENIAC in 1946, they could not have imagined that 71 years later I would be typing this on a computer I carry around in a backpack, any more than Heinlein imagined smartphones. Likewise, I have no idea what VR will be like in 71 years, but it’s hard for me to imagine a world where it hasn’t evolved to give us capabilities that seem like superpowers today. Virtual technology is already starting to revolutionize everything from education to telepresence to architecture to gaming, and well beyond. This will continue for decades, in ways we haven’t even dreamed of yet, with ever greater impact on how we work, play, and interact with one another.
Welcome to the Virtual Age.