Retinal projection — a tantalizingly real future of VR

Avegant’s Glyph retinal projection headset

Companies like Magic Leap and Avegant are making headlines with their development of a technology known as retinal projection. Retinal projection is the process of projecting photons (light) directly into the retinas of a user. In this way, there is no need for external screens and complex lenses.

Will retinal projection hurt our eyes?

Projecting photons directly into someone’s retina may sound questionable for eye health. Truth is, photons bouncing off objects and into our retinas is how we see everyday. Retinal projection utilizes this natural process to project virtual experiences. As Magic Leap is aiming to do, retinal projection may allow virtual objects to be projected into our eyes so they blend in seamlessly with the real world.

Retinal projection is in its infancy.

Retinal projection may allow for more natural projection of virtual objects into the human eye. The current generation of VR headsets utilize special lenses to adjust the visual distance of small screens placed near the eyes. Retinal projection will not require as much physical hardware and may be a more scale-able solution once prices fall.

With ultra high definition retinal projection we can one day visit virtual worlds indistinguishable from real life.

Light field imaging records all photons in a given image, not just a particular resolution of pixels. Light field images are near 1:1 copies of reality to imagery. With the ability to project photons directly into the eyes we may use light field imaging to make virtual copies of real world environments.

It is not a matter of if, but a matter of when.

Creating indistinguishable photo-realistic copies of reality is many years out. When we can create virtual worlds indistinguishable from reality, we may be approaching what Ray Kurzweil calls “the singularity”. Whether or not we believe the singularity to be a realistic possibility, there are no doubts that computers are growing in power.

Combining photo-realistic VR and AI driven storytelling.

It could be decades before technology reaches a point where the virtual mirrors the real world. We already have stories of people foregoing the real world and its responsibilities in favor of the digital. How many more stories like these will we see when virtual is beginning to mirror the real? What happens when we can no longer tell that we are still inside of a game?

Gaming is no longer limited to short duration arcade style fun.

Where we once had game designers hand crafting entire gaming experiences, we now procedurally generate large portions of a game’s space. Minecraft is a prime example of a non-linear game utilizing procedurally generated worlds creating infinite possibilities, and endless entertainment.

With procedural generation there is no need for quest lines or human crafted locales. Players are placed into an entirely malleable world filled with semi-random elements to facilitate the generation of their own personal stories, instead of following a story laid out by designers.

Companies want nothing more than your attention.

Games are designed from the ground up to hold a player’s attention for as long as possible. It’s needless to say that the first AI game directors will be programmed with this imperative in mind. Combine addicting game elements with an AI director designed to keep your attention, on top of a near perfect copy of reality, and we might find an increasing number of people foregoing the real world for the virtual.

The ethical implications of virtual reality will be explored deeply over the coming decades.

It will take years, but studying how virtual reality affects the human mind and body will determine the direction ethical conversations go. We might one day live in a world where people can choose to live their entire lives in the virtual world. Or perhaps extended stays in the virtual world will be warned against, if we find VR to be detrimental to human health.

Each time a new technology or human experience has reached the masses there is friction.

Chess was at one time thought to be detrimental to society, and now we view chess players as intellectuals. Psychedelic drugs, once thought to ruin a person’s mind, are being shown to have lasting positive effects when used responsibly. Virtual reality will follow a similar track as we discover its effects on the human mind, and realize that change doesn’t necessarily mean detriment.

The human mind is malleable.

While adjusting to virtual reality may appear to have detrimental effects for functioning in the real world, who’s to say this is a negative for someone who lives a majority of their life in the virtual world?