“Is VR for real?”

By Maria Kosse

“Virtual reality is where I’ve placed my bet about the future and where the excitement is going. At this point, I could say it’s almost a lock. It’s going to be magical — it is magical — and great things are coming from that.”

- John Carmack

“I used to be all about virtual reality. Until I spent a lot of time with it.”

-Phil Iwaniuk

Recently, several members of the Fjord Seattle studio traveled 20 miles northeast of downtown Seattle to The University of Washington Bothell, one of the three campuses that comprise The University of Washington (UW). The mission was a simple one: in partnership with Jason Pace, head of UW Bothell’s Digital Future Labs, we would lead a panel and activity about one of the 2017 Fjord Trends, Blurred Reality, for college students interested in learning more about the implications of Extended Reality (xR) technology. However, what emerged at the end of the night surpassed all expectations, as the panel discussion and outputs from the interactive exercise indicated that the future of Extended Reality is one fraught with both dissonance and harmony, potential, and limitations.

Walking into the technology-laden UW Bothell Collaboratory, a room designed for students to collaborate, study, or explore various interests (similar to what we do in our Makeshop), it was obvious the scene was set for an in-depth discussion about the future of xR. Multiple 3-D printers buzzed, aspiring game developers collaboratively coded on shared machines, and VR headsets lay ready to transport their users into another world. Twelve UW Bothell students from various majors and disciplines arrived, eager to learn from the perspectives of the panelists and engage in hands-on concepting about how VR could be best applied within a university setting.

The evening began with five distinguished panelists — Tres Henry (Oracle), Di Dang (POP), Staci Jaime (UW), Jason Pace (UW Bothell, Digital Future Labs), and Jake Zukowski (Fjord Seattle) — speaking about their own experience with and exposure to xR in its various forms. After explaining what xR meant to them, the panelists engaged in a lively discussion surrounding whether or not “2017 was a make-or-break year for VR.” In line with the Blurred Reality Trend, the panelists ultimately agreed that 2017 would be a major year for VR, Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR). However, the panelists were split on which forms of xR would rise to prominence in 2017 and beyond.

The Panel — Is 2017 the year of VR?

Half of the panel supported the notion that 2017 was the year of VR, arguing that the media attention and breadth of funding mandated its breakthrough into mainstream this year, even if only at a foundational level. They pointed to successful implementations of VR, such as:

  • the use of VR in retirement homes
  • the United Nations’ film about the refugee crisis in Syria and,
  • the use of VR to assist in PTSD treatments…

…as proof that VR was on the bubble of becoming a staple in the many technology options available today.

Conversely, the other half of the panel argued that AR and MR have more potential to expand into widespread public use, arguing that VR’s lack of mobility and disregard of a user’s environment would be its ultimate downfall. They suggested that AR and MR allowed the user to more intimately connect with their surroundings, leading to a more emotional connection to the technology than could be provided by a VR headset.

This sentiment is echoed in our Blurred Reality trend, as Fjord notes that “in 2017, as MR moves toward the mainstream, organizations will turn away from single, siloed, enhanced reality experiences to focus instead on harnessing and combining all types of reality — enhanced and real,” suggesting a move from VR to AR or MR experiences.

The Panel — Failure to Adopt

All members of the panel, however, concluded that while there are positive aspects of xR, such as the potential to invoke empathy and its potential for application across disciplines, there is also the possibility of xR failing to be adopted by mainstream consumers. Many of the panelists pointed to:

  • lack of continued use of VR by consumers after initial excitement wears off
  • the spacial limitations of VR and,
  • the lack of practical applications in a traditional home or work environment…

…as evidence that while the concept of xR is exciting, and should continue to be pursued, it is still limited in major ways.

This parallels to our thinking that “the key to designing for this new MR world will lie in building blurred reality experiences capable of being integrated seamlessly into users’ lives” — something that is not yet widely accomplished.

The Panel — Impact on the Future

Finally, the panel discussed what excited them the most about xR’s impact on the future. Their answers ranged from better video gaming experiences, to practical uses in the home and workplace, to opportunities for improved occupational training. However, the major consensus centered on xR’s potential to beempathy. All of the panelists shared stories of how they had seen VR evoke empathy by placing the user in the shoes of another human being. This ability to “elicit feelings,” as detailed in the Blurred Reality trend, will have long lasting effects on xRs success, and ultimately serves as a distinguisher between xR and other forms of less relational technology.

The Students

The UW Bothell students then took center stage, as they were introduced to Fjord’s Round Robin design method. Teams of three students designed challenge statements around the prompt: “How can VR benefit University Life?” After participating in several rounds of concepting and critique, the teams voted and presented their top concept to the wider group. The chosen concepts were varied, and included:

  • how VR could be used to provide campus tours to potential students who live far from campus
  • how AR could be applied to help deaf students in the classroom
  • how MR could be used to help engineers design better products in class, for final projects, and after graduation.

The overall consensus was positive, as the UW Bothell students expressed enjoyment at the opportunity to bridge learning from experts with hands-on activities that served to make the content applicable to their daily lives. Ultimately, they too, like the panelists, expressed ambiguity over the future of xR, noting that while in theory their proposed applications would positively impact university life, in practice there were many limitations that would need to be overcome in order to effectively roll out an immersive xR experience in both university life and elsewhere — cost and accessibility being of primary concern.

What’s Next?

This night was in large part possible due to the efforts of Jason Pace. His dedication to bringing relevant content about emerging technology to UW Bothell’s Digital Future Labs provided Fjord Seattle with an outlet through which to share one of Fjord’s 2017 Trends and begin a conversation about how VR will impact society in 2017.

But it doesn’t stop here.

In addition to partnering with Jason and his team for future events, Fjord Seattle is planning several more events this year, and will be building upon this particular discussion about VR in mid-May during a session about design thinking at The University of Washington. Exciting things are happening in the Emerald City…stay tuned!