Virtual, augmented, mixed, simulated or mediated: to someone who has just woken up to this world, it might seem that reality is having an identity crisis. To figure out which is which and how they differ from one another requires some arduous brain work. That’s without mentioning that the entire industry is steaming ahead at breakneck pace and creating so many new acronyms that it could start writing rap songs. Even if you fancy the “real” reality the most, it might be a good time to learn why surgeons and construction workers will be wearing similar “hats” in the near future.
A Brief History of Reality
The oldest artificial realities date back to 1962, when Morton Heilig created a mechanical device called Sensorama which looked like an ATM with a metallic dog cone. It included a color display, fans, odor emitters, stereo sound system, and a motional chair. You stuck your head in and it played one of five short movies. Sensorama was, in a way, the world’s first 5D cinema.
Just six years later, this “experience theatre” was further developed into the first-ever virtual-reality (VR, Virtual Reality) headset, called “The Sword of Damocles”. The name reflected the formidable appearance of the so-called head-mounted display (HMD, Head Mounted Display) rather well because it was so heavy that it needed to be suspended from the ceiling.
The augmented/mixed reality was introduced much later, in 1992, and resulted in one of the coolest games of 2005 a table tennis simulation named AR (Augmented Reality) Tennis. One table, two phones as bats, a digital ball, and a digital net. Yes, AR worked on those chunky two-inch-display Nokias with an actual physical keyboard and joystick years before iPhones and Android were born. Feeling old now?
Ready Reader One
Fast-forward to 2014: Facebook acquired the technological company Oculus VR for $2 billion, which let the public know that these weird, geeky helmets people used to play games with could be the next big thing. By 2016, there were at least 230 companies, including Google, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft, developing VR-related products. The enormous potential of this new technology worked on investors like a lamp on moths.
For those of you who haven’t tried it already, it’s fairly simple to use. You put on specialised goggles that narrow your vision into two small displays. Each display projects a slightly different angle to simulate depth. This, along with other depth-simulating techniques, such as parallax (distant objects seem to move more slowly than closer ones), create an illusion of a lifelike experience.
You can enhance the experience by wearing ear- or headphones, sitting down on a motion chair, or using haptic accessories, such as responsive gloves. Congratulations, you have successfully tricked your brain into believing you are in a totally different 3D world.
The Czech Footprint
Entertainment comes to mind first. VR game rooms, cinemas, theme parks, and even an actual wind tunnel which you can literally dive into – these experiences are all available to enjoy in Prague right now. Speaking of which, in February 2019, the Czech VR game Beat Saber became the first in history to sell a million copies. All the more impressive, this game, in which you slash through boxes with digital lightsabers, was developed by just two people.
The Czech Republic is also home to the “Rolls Royce of Virtual Reality,” the XTAL headset by Prague-based VR startup VRgineers. It boasts 5K resolution, a 180° field of view, new proprietary technologies, and even voice commands. The price tag of $5,800 is a hefty sum to shell out, but XTAL is aimed at professionals. This leads us to the most promising fields for this new tech.
VR Hard, Fight Easy
Imagine a remote and dangerous place and add a humanoid robot. Now imagine yourself in a haptic suit (looks more or less like a diving suit) wearing a VR headset in the comfort of your living room. Turn the systems on. The robot which could be a thousand miles away perfectly imitates every single one of your moves. If the robot gets hurt, you don’t.
Not only does this futuristic technology sound incredible, but it opens the door to spaces humans were physically incapable of exploring in person; places with immense heat, pressure or radiation, such as outer space, other planets, Earth’s mantle, or the nuclear fallout area in Chernobyl. Furthermore, this could mean no buried miners, no lumberjacks smashed by falling tree trunks, and no dead soldiers in future space wars with aliens.
These echoes of the maybe-not-so-distant future sound marvellous. Scaling it down a notch, VR is already helping surgeons prepare for operations, architects with building 3D modelling, businesses with employee training, manufacturers with prototype testing, and government officials with city management. That is just the tip of the iceberg!
Psychology and Healthcare
Virtual reality has found its way into social sciences and psychology as well. Researchers mostly use it to create the illusion of owning a body other than one’s own and track behavioural changes afterwards. While putting individuals in the shoes of the elderly reduced their negative bias towards old people, the research on racial bias, that put light-skinned individuals in dark-body avatars, is not that decisive. Some studies show lower and some higher levels of racial prejudice as a result of the experiments.
Virtual reality has also been used in treating anxiety disorders. Patients are navigating through tailored digital environments and complete tasks often designed to treat a specific ailment. One of the most successful uses of this technology, Virtual Iraq, lets patients navigate a Humvee around virtual recreations of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the United States to help them battle post-traumatic stress disorder. The resulting study found that, on average, Virtual Iraq reduced PTSD symptoms by half.
The Curious Case of Google Glass
Virtual reality’s younger brother, augmented reality, has only recently pushed through the lid of broader application. The main difference is, as its name suggests, that AR adds to our reality instead of replacing it entirely. To use a movie analogy, VR is your Matrix, Tron, or Total Recall, and AR is your Terminator, Top Gun, or Iron Man. Put differently, AR is the skinny guy focused on describing stuff and VR is the muscly drug dealer who also kidnaps people.
The best way to describe AR would probably be by referring to Google Glass. No piece of consumer technology caused as much attention, division, and visions of a dystopian future as Google’s fancy new wearables in 2013. The wireless glasses were able to project online information, react to voice commands, and video record the world around the wearer. Just like your smartphone, but in front of your eyes overlaying the real-world view with semi-translucent digital content.
Being just like your smartphone, however, was one of the main reasons for its quick demise. People didn’t see any extra value in this piece of tech. Where VR reduced the cost of military training and helped in research and anxiety treatment, AR saved you from sticking your hand into your pocket. Add the obvious security risk of turning this device into a spy camera, the resulting bad press, legislative action, and a ridiculously high price of $1,500, and you end up with less than a year on the market.
Not That Bad
To be fair, Google Glass was also meant to help in hospitals, for example in ophthalmoscopy or interventional radiology. Moreover, Dr. Christopher Kaeding at Ohio State University in the US used Google Glass during an ongoing surgery to consult with his colleague while streaming the operation to university students’ laptops so that they could see it in real time.
Augmented reality took off later in 2016 with, you guessed it, a mobile video game. Pokémon GO was downloaded more than a billion times this year and grossed over $3 billion worldwide, grabbing the world’s attention and paving the way for other, “more useful” projects. Nowadays, AR has a wide range of uses, including aircraft and automotive navigation, military use, tourism, retail, sports, and advertising.
With quite a few names and different definitions, people can become confused when trying to discern augmented from mixed reality. The easiest way to describe MR(Mixed Reality) is that it is an enhanced form of AR, where you can interact with the overlaid digital information and anchor digital objects to real-world ones. Remember how Tom Cruise used his glove to operate the displayed holograms in Minority Report? That’s mixed reality. Yes, we do love our movie examples.
To better distinguish the two, picture yourself in a future IKEA shop with the AR/MR glasses on. When you walk through the physical shop, AR brings you detailed information about the furniture you’re looking at and could display predefined room designs. MR, on the other hand, gives you the ability to change the room designs in digital space and make them your own. If you don’t like the brown sofa in the corner, move it opposite the fireplace. Don’t like the TV in your room? Ditch it. Now click the “save” button and proceed to payment.
Mixed reality is still too expensive for use in smaller businesses, let alone by individuals. Even though Microsoft pushed the price of its new HoloLens 2 visor down by $1,500 this year, it still costs a whopping $3,500. In comparison, you can buy the Oculus Rift VR headset for $400. That’s why companies developing MR are mostly focusing on large businesses with promises of creating the super-employees of the future.
Construction workers could overlay blueprints over worksites, surgeons will be capable of consulting patients’ medical records in real time, and employees from different parts of the world could easily collaborate without sacrificing productivity.
The coming years might seem rosy for all types of mediated reality, but every story has two sides. Artificial reality not only raises concerns about security and privacy, but also causes individuals to become overconfident and distracts them from real-world threats. According to researchers at Purdue University, the aforementioned AR game Pokémon GO caused “a disproportionate increase in crashes and associated vehicular damage, injuries, and fatalities in the vicinity of locations where users can play the game while driving”.
Virtual reality does not come out totally clean either. Most VR devices come with staggering consumer warnings including seizures, developmental issues in children, repetitive stress injury, trip-and-fall and collision warnings, or interference with medical devices. According to Oculus Rift’s instructional booklet, only one in 4,000 users experiences such symptoms. This number rises among young people under 20, who are not advised to use VR devices. The exposure to a virtual environment can also make you “cyber sick,” with symptoms similar to motion sickness.
Sooner or Later
What gives some government officials a headache is the legal perspective. They have just created a few outlines for and barriers to cryptocurrencies, and are currently discussing Internet of Things regulation. Now this. What issues apply to the virtual space? Mental and physical health, financial crime, aggressive advertising, fake news, you name it.
As much as you may love the “real” reality, it is only a matter of time before we use different digital realities as smoothly as we now use our smartphones. One day, architects will design houses in virtual reality, transport companies will use augmented reality to deliver materials, construction workers will use mixed reality to build it, and if our editorial team likes the result in real reality, we might give it a good online review.