This post is by Bernard Marr, Best-Selling Author, Keynote Speaker and Leading Business and Data Expert
Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are real hot potatoes at the moment, and understandably so. They undoubtedly have the potential to revolutionize the way that we interact with each other, and with machines, in the digital world.
Facebook’s $2bn purchase of Oculus, one of the leading developers of consumer VR headsets shows the confidence and high expectations opinion leaders have of this emerging technology.
Up to now, other than the strong vote of confidence a $2bn investment reveals, Facebook itself has been fairly quiet about what it plans to do with the technology.
But through the opinions of others in the field, including some who are known to have been working in partnership with the world’s largest social network, hints are beginning to emerge.
Oculus, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Facebook, has already put its name on one consumer VR product – Samsung’s Gear VR. As with Google’s Cardboard headsets, rather than requiring an expensive PC, it’s basically a holder for a smartphone, which generates the actual VR experiences. Already Facebook allows users to share 3D video content designed for the Gear VR on its Oculus store.
This cheap and cheerful pioneering of VR tech has drastically lowered the barriers to entry into virtual worlds, and spawned an industry of developers keen to show what can already be done. One of these is Starship, developers of the VTime app which already lets users meet up with friends in virtual reality. Once inside one of VTime’s worlds, there’s really only one thing to do – socialize.
At the Wearable Technology Show in London this week, Starship’s CMO Julian Price talked about how VR had the potential to turn social networks into sociable networks. The key, he said, will be the transition from phone, tablet or computer-based interactions, which are largely asynchronous, into real-time, VR interactions, where participants are perfectly in synch.
He said “Social is asynchronous, and it is quite isolating. That leads to digital narcissism – it leads to people going on about how great their world is. VR is really about how great our world is, the world we all share together – it’s a way of being able to share that.”
VTime’s app currently lets up to four people visit a variety of scenic locations, such as the International Space Station, a cave campfire and a polar waste – and chat. Users are represented by avatars. Future plans include increasing the number of participants as well as enabling more interaction with the scenery, via the increased functionality of upcoming, more high tech headsets.
But it offers a fascinating glimpse into the possibilities for the social, sociable networks of the future. Price says his company is resistant to one of the most commonly requested features – the ability to import digitized facial images to create avatars that resemble real people. This is, he says, because the technology isn’t quite up to the job yet and can induce a sensation known as uncanny valley, which is potentially uncomfortable or nauseating. However one other firm exhibiting at the event, California based startup DoubleMe, was demonstrating technology which allows highly accurate and lifelike 3D representations of anybody to be captured with a simple camera setup, and dropped straight into virtual worlds.
It surely won’t be long at all before these technologies come together and we will be able to meet realistic representations of our friends and colleagues in whatever environment we feel like. And feelings play a big part – the holy grail of VR is total immersion, indistinguishable from the real world. That is a way off, but virtual worlds available today, such as VTime’s, are careful to include as much detail – what Price refers to as “finer brush strokes” – as possible.
“We create these fine brush strokes with details you can see – such as breath coming out of my mouth [in the Arctic] and fish swimming down there. It’s about playing with people’s emotions – being sociable is about emotions. VR should not all be about vomit inducing rollercoasters and phantasmagorical words. There’s a place for that but VR is also an enabling tech which allows people to do what they’ve always done – socialize”.
So while the hype around leisure VR is often driven by gaming and the possibilities for blowing things up in a completely immersive environment, a far greater amount of our time spent in virtual worlds is likely to involve more sedate experiences designed to facilitate interaction with each other, rather than with the machine.
While VTime currently offers a selection of pre-developed “worlds” for users to visit, the expectation is that the technology will move towards giving us the ability to create personalized worlds. Applying this line of thought to the uses Facebook might find gives rise to the idea of Facebook Worlds. Instead of pages, which we have currently and are used to customizing with whatever we want to share, we will have our own worlds. We will choose how they are decorated, what pictures will be on display to visitors, and whatever else we want to express about ourselves. Crucially they will allow us to take part it synchronous interactions with our friends and family who visit us in our worlds. Of course there will always be a need for meetings on neutral grounds, so it will be possible to visit just about any environment which can be imagined, for group meetings, just as Facebook group pages exist now.
Of course there will be challenges to overcome – once we get beyond the “uncanny valley”, there are clearly ethical concerns about the potential of putting lifelike avatars of real people into virtual environments. Will we be safe to assume that people are who they appear to be? We’ve already seen that hijacking others’ Facebook accounts and posting humorous or vulgar messages can be a fertile source of entertainment for some. Imagine the potential for mischief if a lifelike avatar could be similarly hijacked?
And obviously there are concerns about revenue. Will our carefully constructed personal online idylls be plastered with advertising hoardings? Product placement seems an inevitability, but to what extent, if any, will it break the immersion?
Facebook’s primary revenue stream comes from harvesting our personal data and selling it to advertisers. How much more about us will they be able to learn if they are monitoring our every interaction and movement within a virtual world? How we move, sit, speak and laugh when we are interacting synchronously, rather than in staggered manner of online message sharing we’re all used to. Will this always be information we are happy with them having access to?
These are questions which are all going to have to be addressed at some point. Things are moving fast in the consumer VR field, and with this year seeing the long awaited release of several highly anticipated headsets, as well as the hints emerging from Facebook or partnered companies about potential applications, we can expect to find out the answers very soon.
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