Trying on a VR (virtual reality) headset in our office’s new ‘Room of the Future’ was perhaps the most technologically shocking moment in my life (second to using the internet in tandem with the landline, which I’m still coming to terms with.) My preconceptions about VR’s capabilities were that the graphics weren’t believable enough to create an illusion of a convincing virtual reality. When I donned the headset and fired up the system I realised just how wrong I had been.
Even though my body was confined to a small room, my mind believed I was in the Himalayas, telling my legs not to move lest I fall to a rocky death. A couple of hours later, I was ready to say my vows, tie the knot, and be with the headset till death do us part. Having a tour around Google Earth wasn’t even my favourite part; defending a castle with a bow and arrow and the human anatomy simulation were definitely a more eye-opening experience for VR. Using your hands as anatomical planes traversing through a human body filled me with a sense of overwhelming envy for the forthcoming generations. Having studied neuroscience at university, I can’t tell you how useful this would have been for my degree: VR clearly has a role in education.
Schools have pretty much remained the same since the beginning of organised education: children sit at desks and listen to teachers talk at them for an hour with a few exercises sprinkled here and there. VR could disrupt the industry: no longer do kids need to be disengaged and bored, they can be taken into a virtual world, given hands-on experience, and learn so much more in an immersive environment. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, looking at screens directly for 7 hours a days would leave kids queuing up at their opticians but hey, if anything, this article is a heads-up to invest in Luxottica now.
It might be that, until screens become more eye-friendly, this reality may not become widely adopted, although I can still see VR being deployed for educational uses. It could allow trainee surgeons to have a more in-depth look at the human body by being able to travel through arteries, architects to walk around their concepts, and it’s even been stipulated that psychiatrists could use VR as a mental health game-changer by using it to treat PTSD, phobias and all kinds of other cases. The possibilities are virtually endless.
I can’t talk about VR without giving a mention to its edgier, younger sibling AR (augmented reality). AR uses your current surroundings and gives it a face-lift - think Snapchat filters and then some. While VR gives you a totally immersive experience in another world, AR lets you interact with your surroundings. There are benefits to using AR: it provides a higher sensory experience while also being more sociable. However, instead of sitting in a room playing with VR, Microsoft is toying with its Hololens using Minecraft to make AR more active. This is why people working in VR, to compete with AR, are working so hard to make VR more social. For example, Google's Daydream platform allows you to watch videos together in virtual reality and Facebook recently launched its Spaces app, to make it fun to hang out with your friends in VR.
The potential future of AR, however, is all about augmentation. The technology can help keep your hands free, so that workers can reap the benefits of additional information as they work. Blueprints could overlay construction sites, NASA engineers and astronauts would be able to see important schematics laid on top of critical mission systems; AR is all about overlaying your current environment with more information.
Furthermore, there are uses of AR that we've barely thought about yet. To name one in particular, UC Berkeley is working on a way to use AR as a way to communicate with robots. The problem with robots now is that we have to turn toward command screens to get all our information. With AR, anyone could look at a Roomba or a drone and instantly see its battery level, current task, and where it's going next.
So where are we headed? What’s to come? I can't help you with that, and that's because this really comes down to what humanity wants as a whole. Do we want a future based in reality, with additional and useful information to make our daily lives easier? Or do we want a fabricated, virtual reality that is cut off from our actual reality. It’s possible that each of them develops its own uses rather than competing with each other. AR could turn into an everyday help for the common person, helping them make better decisions about food, transportation, and people, whereas VR could turn into an entertainment or educational activity. In any case I’m really looking forward to what the future holds.