Are you a Nomophobe? If you’ve ever experienced the sudden pang of anxiety when you realise your phone is dead, that you’re isolated from your virtual network, and oh-god-what-do-I-do-now, then you’ve already joined that particular club.
And while you’re nervously rummaging in your pockets for a portable phone charger (and oh-god-what-if-that’s-dead-too), take a moment to imagine a future where you’re not tied to a phone - and where any place or object can be your screen, your messaging app, or your browser.
Or more: so much more.
There’s a huge leap in perception when a quick peek into another world fills your field of vision: your brain suddenly thinks, hey — I’m there.
Interacting with the world through small screens is second nature: a Snapchat sent from the other side of the globe is a glimpse of life somewhere else. But there’s a huge leap in perception when that quick peek fills your field of vision: your brain suddenly thinks, hey — I’m there.
Some deceptively big philosophical questions loom large here. If everything that you see only truly exists inside your eyes: at what point does “virtual reality” simply become “reality?” This is the story of where our visual reality is going, and why it’ll feel so real when you get there.
But let’s rewind a bit. This is a future that starts right now, via consumer-ready VR devices that remodel how you look at the world, and how you interact with it.
And the big stuff is nowhere nearly as far away as you think.
TODAY: The screen is your window
By now you’ve possibly — at the behest of an excited friend—slipped your phone into a Cardboard “VR” headset, and felt the quick-and-dirty thrill of a 360º animation. (It was probably one of the rollercoaster ones. Everyone loves the rollercoaster ones. Wheeeee!)
The modern VR revolution started with simplicity, for good reason. By virtually replicating experiences we’re already used to—video games, linear videos, simple human interaction, (rollercoasters!) — VR firms are betting that we’ll willingly swallow the gateway drug. We’re stepping into a future most of us can’t even picture yet.
The excitement of these very basic VR experiences, whilst real, is brief. Once the novelty wears off, what remains is a passive experience, pixellated graphics, and a surge of nausea—a non-virtual experience reminiscent of green-gilled car journeys.
But an interactive, non-vomitous leap between realities is where the future really begins. Moore’s law has held fast, and we’ve whooshed past the VR tipping point, where the visual processing needed to convince to our highly attuned sense of space met the miniaturised tech needed to make it plausible.
You can fast-track the growth of your laundry pile with a succession of soiled trousers by playing Resident Evil 7 in VR
That’s why it’s impossible to avoid the miasma of hype around Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PS VR. These products are anything but gimmicks: they’re powerful gateways to virtual worlds where. Once inside, and having performed backflips, your brain will rush off in ten directions at once as it gets to grips with the new possibilities a hyper-unreal world delivers.
And while you can fast-track the growth of your laundry pile with a succession of soiled trousers by playing Resident Evil 7 in PS VR, it’s applications like Google’s Tilt Brush that will literally change your perspective as, for the first time, you can paint in three dimensions, and view the subsequent drawing from any angle or point in time you desire.
But transforming how something as fundamental as drawing is made, understood and experienced is only scratching the surface. The next wave of virtual reality technology isn’t merely aiming to create worlds: it wants to utterly change the one you already know.
TOMORROW: The window is your (magic) window
The stunning strength of VR is also its stumbling block: users, absorbed in the “other place,” can’t interact with the place they’re standing in. The screen is literally a barrier between the user and the real world — great for immersion; not so good for integration.
What happens when the real world is mixed with the virtual? This is where things get interesting. In Augmented, or Mixed Reality, you’ll look through a transparent screen and anything you like can be superimposed over, or woven into, your world.
So if VR is impressive and immersive, AR can be all the other -ives too: intuitive, unobtrusive, additive, even subversive.
Wait - isn’t this Google Glass on steroids? Nope — this is a hyper-augmented reality where the headset understands the shape of the world around you and places virtual objects into it, seamlessly. Microsoft’s Hololens, only slightly bulkier than Oculus, has already slipped into the gap between our eyes and what we used to call reality.
So what will AR feel like? Well, magic.
So what will AR feel like? Well, magic. Think past games and designed experiences - and look to your phone for inspiration (how’s that battery % now?) Now, notifications become choices, not annoyances; and information intuitively arrives when you need it.
Glance up to the sky to see a cluster of notifications dangling above you. Dismiss them with a blink or let your gaze hang on one to open it up, and then swipe it away with your hand when you realise it’s an email from LinkedIn.
Later: it’s been a long day—and you fancy watching a movie on a big screen, but your apartment is the size of a cupboard. So open Netflix, select The Shining, and with a pinch of thumb and forefinger, re-size and pin the movie onto the farthest wall. Squeamish? Turn away while Jack’s on the rampage, and the movie will hang on the far wall where you left it.
Maybe any object can become an interactive tool: pick up a rectangular object —a book, a menu, or, hey, even a phone that’s out of juice— and your AR device will superimpose a “tablet” interface on it. It’ll track the object and your hands so you can swipe, taps and pinch as normal while you browse Buzzfeed (and yes, gifs will flourish like graffiti in your new augmented world.)
It’ll initially feel like magic – and then, it’ll quickly be part of life. And these are the simplest examples.
Now picture the day when Kim Kardashian sashays into your living room and sits down next to you…
SOON: there is no window
In the end we won’t need screens at all. Magic Leap is the wealthiest startup you’ve never heard of, and may change your life in ways you can’t even conceive. The company is as dazzlingly ambitious as it is utterly secretive— but maybe the latter is necessary when you’re building a headset that’ll beam a new reality directly into your eyeballs.
This technology — a virtual retinal display — means that there’s no screen at all; and because images are projected via fibre optic cables directly onto your retina, the imagery isn’t “high-resolution” - it’s the same resolution as your eyes.
Couple this realism with advanced 3D modelling techniques, an understanding of the world around you and how objects fit into it, and your world can be populated with virtual objects.
Welcome to IRL 2.0, where the world is exactly shaped to your bidding. Tired and emotional after a late night out, and lost on your way home? Street signs can now flash to catch your attention and point you home and to your bed. Bored of adverts that clutter a walk down the high street? How about a real-world ad-blocker that replaces billboards with Beyoncé gifs?
Why watch the Kardashians on TV if you could summon a 3D-Kim to sit in the chair next to you?
If this all sounds too far-fetched to be real, then the likes of Google, Alibaba and others didn’t get the memo, because they’ve have poured billions of dollars into projects to make this happen. So what will a truly augmented reality be like? And what happens when you can’t see the join between the two realities?
The logical endpoint for a barrier-less mixed reality is a semi-fantasy world where, put simply, we get what we want. It’s kind of already been here for a while: we have already blurred boundaries between our world and the scripted “reality” of Reality TV.
So why watch the Kardashians on TV if you could summon a 3D Kim to sit in the chair next to you, and spill the beans, face to flawlessly-made-up-face? Tell me everything, Kim.
Twist the dial, blur the lines further: if you could recreate a dead pet into a 3D avatar that faithfully followed you all day, would you? What about dead family members? Or ex-lovers? Could you resist?
Our mixed reality is almost here. And when it arrives, it’ll reveal the single greatest frustration you’ll ever feel: next, you’ll want to reach out and touch what you see.