5 Compelling Reasons All of Us Should Care About Virtual Reality

Post inspired by Tilt Brush — an incredible application, and an experience that singularly conveys the vast potential of virtual reality. (Note: I use the terms virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR = VR+AR), and natural interfaces to refer broadly to this new class of augmentation tools that allow us to see, hear, feel, and manipulate digital scenes around us)

Legendary Disney animator Glen Keane painting Ariel with Tilt Brush

1. VR and AR will allow us to easily express what we imagine, and in doing so, will encourage us to imagine more.

VR and AR create endless spatial canvases upon which nearly anything can be imagined and expressed. Look at Tilt Brush — a tool where you can paint in 3 dimensions, using brush strokes or shapes or even light. Virtual and augmented reality, more than games or holographic communication or virtual field trips, will be vehicles for idea generation and hi-def expression. Somewhere along the way, we lose our ability to imagine and dream and instead set boundaries on our thinking based on what we know about the world. As we get older, we learn more about the world and what is possible, and worse, what is practical. We stop thinking big — when we are young, we can play pretend and really believe that we’re standing on a magic carpet, that our pillow forts are castles, and that boxes can take us to distant planets. Fortunately…

Spaceman Spiff aka Calvin aka Stupendous Man

2. Natural interfaces such as VR and AR can help return us to that childlike state of wonder and imagination.

360 video of the Taj Mahal

Look at how excited people are when they try it for the first time — my mom, who isn’t super tech savvy, conceptually understood what I meant by VR but didn’t seem too interested. When she tried Google Cardboard for the first time, something clicked, and she looked around gasping in awe at seeing the Taj Mahal, familiar streets in Pakistan, the Blue Mosque in Turkey. When people try it for the first time, you can see it on their faces, in their reactions — VR and AR already elicit in us childlike reactions of wonder — it’s no stretch to assume they can also retrieve our boundless childlike imaginations, encouraging us to create and enabling us to do so with intuitive tools for creation. (intuitive = easier to learn and use in a way that more naturally flows from our organic thoughts)

3. VR/AR tools can democratize creativity.

The current prototyping methods available to us. We talk, gesture, write, draw, design, code, and build. These are the channels we must use in order to get our thoughts our into the real world, where they can be understood by others. VR will introduce more intuitive modes of expression.

These days, when we have an idea or a concept that we want to express, we write, we draw, we code, we design, we talk and gesture. These are the current options available to us if we want to express information, get it out of our heads and into the real world, into a place where we can better visualize them, and where they can be visualized by others. However, these methods have two main challenges: the time investment and the learning curve. VR/AR tools, by making expression faster and more intuitive, can democratize idea rendering. Soon everyone will be able to use intuitive tools to draw, script, animate, and create, using more dimensions and sensory modalities than before, and realize their ideas in the truest sense of the word: we will be able to make our ideas real. This is why the magic of mixed reality is in its tools for creation. We will be able to articulate our thoughts as closely as possible to how we think about them in our heads. Rather than sketching on a flat paper or typing on a keyboard, we will be able to use our gestures, eyes, and eventually our brains to conjure (‘physical’ representations of) our thoughts in the real world. The ultimate goal being a holy grail of neuroscience: building a tool that essentially reads our minds and displays/communicates exactly what we are thinking.

4. Mixed Reality is how we will feel, and even become, superhuman.

Tony Stark using a holographic interface in “Iron Man”

VR won’t be just virtual for long. Digital and physical are merging: wireless commands can already control smart objects, and soon haptics will add physicality to virtual objects. But ‘physical’ also refers to whether something obeys the laws of physics. When we think of conjuring virtual objects, e.g. holograms we can touch, we’re creating things that disobey the laws of physics so we can better visualize our thoughts. And isn’t that what all of this is an endeavor in? Disobeying the laws of physics, going beyond our physical constraints, becoming bionic, superhuman, metaphysical. After all, we are enhancing reality, augmenting it — which is why some describe this movement as augmented human.

5. MR will redefine sharing.

So we are trending objects from mental to physical, or inside mind to outside mind. That is why I predict mixed reality tools will primarily be used for thought sharing and collaboration. As I described in my introductory post, a better connection between mind and medium → better connection between mind and mind. The future could one day see us connecting mind to mind more directly, maybe even achieving a shared consciousness of sorts.

Let’s think about people as nodes in a network. It’s not enough to connect more nodes, we must make stronger connections between them (indicated in the diagram as double bonds). Connectivity is measured not just by the number of connections, but by the strength of those connections.

Mixed reality will dominate the way we share information in the future. This is obvious since it’s the future of personal computing, but in a more profound way than we might think. Today we marvel over how the Internet has accelerated sharing, how this is the age of connectivity, because our DEVICES are connected. But soon we will improve the interface between device and human, and we will marvel at how much better WE are communicating, how much more HUMANS are connected. We are already connected in many ways, but augmentation tools will connect us in better ways (quality + quantity).

Hololens’s vision for augmented reality

What does this look like? Say someone has an idea for a kitchen remodel, or a new pair of shoes, or a way to structure a certain argument in a company presentation. She can share that information by drawing digital lines on a physical space, by pulling in automatically generated image suggestions, by spatially organizing information that makes the argument much clearer. The result is an interface that lets people connect their thoughts more fluidly, with fewer degrees of loss/separation.

In a nutshell:

The reason we should all care about natural interfaces (virtual/augmented reality, haptics, binaural audio, etc) is that

  1. They will unleash a creative revolution, opening the possibilities for us to realize our most imaginative thoughts and democratizing the tools we have to express them. What would you create with an endless spatial canvas? What will you draw for your first Tilt Brush project? What would your kids draw?
  2. They will dominate the way we share our creations and fundamentally change how we think about sharing and collaborating. Ever feel that ‘click’ when you’re on the exact same page as somebody else, or when you come up with the same idea simultaneously? Those moments should be coming in droves. And natural interfaces will be the catalyst.

It’s an exciting time to be paying attention. The next 5–10 years will create a world that looks vastly different from the one today. Tech visionaries are comparing what’s happening today with VR/AR to the early days of the Internet, or the beginning of the smartphone — it’s the same feeling. A boom is coming, and with it optimism, land grab, and sea change. Full speed ahead.

Kingspray’s Graffiti VR experience on the HTC/Steam Vive