What I Talk About When I Talk About ‘VR’

Photo 20140501_172830 by Janus Sandsgaard of what (with any luck) VR will not become. :)

In recent weeks, and much to my surprise given my historic and well documented skepticism on the matter, I’ve found myself more and more fascinated with virtual, mixed and augmented reality. Here’s why!

Convergence

IoT, machine learning, conversational UIs, bots, VR, and even (after all these years) mobile may be hot topics today, but these technologies are already beginning to converge. It’s through this convergence that they will thrive, and in the not-too-distant future largely disappear from active conversation as they become our new ‘normal’. To me, VR isn’t a hot new thing but a small piece of a larger and emerging whole.

No technology develops in a vacuum, and the onslaught of new and colliding technologies has started to significantly change the way we express ourselves, relate to each other, and to the world around us. Fuelled in great part by mobile, social, and an increasingly global audience, we’ve witnessed a huge growth in remix culture. This cultural malleability will no doubt continue to grow as fantastic (and occasionally creepy) new technologies such as real-time face capture and re-enactment cause us to increasingly question How [We] See the World.

Where the Web meets the World

With over a decade in mobile and a previous life in theatre, animation, and ‘rich media’ authoring, I see lots to explore in the world we are about to enter. While yiibu continues it’s current focus, Steph and I have decided to explore our VR/AR ideas through a new side-project called oorümchi.

Here are just a few things we’ll be looking at:

Social objects

If animated GIFs, AMP, Facebook Instant Articles and Snapchat’s latest experiments have taught us anything, the ‘best’ experience is often immaterial compared to something ‘good enough’ that you can easily share with those around you.

What is the VR equivalent of a small, meaningful, easily shareable social thing?

Progressive enhancement

We have enough technology silos these days. Let’s not create a bunch more.

How can we learn from progressive enhancement on the web to deliver experiences that begin on a ‘vanilla’ mobile (or even in the real world using the physical web) and are then enhanced as a user moves up the ‘experience stack’ — from cheap and cheerful Google Cardboard, to Gear VR-style commodity hardware, to a full-blown Oculus-style experience (and maybe even higher)?

Just enough and just-in-time VR

The best VR experiences already leverage more than just sight, and multi-sensory experiences will no doubt only improve as sensors, controllers, and other bespoke gear comes to market. But how much augmentation do we really need?

How little must we augment reality to fundamentally improve an experience?

Reality is augmented when it feels different, not when it looks different.
- Kevin Slavin, from “Reality is Plenty, Thanks.”

Where to next?

A new generation of users are leveraging emerging platforms and technologies to create experiences that may not fit our current definitions of VR — but aren’t really that far off.

What other experiences could we create if we let go of current definitions (or at the very least, assumptions) of what is ’virtual’ or ‘augmented’?

The long nose of technology

Current generation VR is far from perfect. The hardware is either clunky or expensive (and sometimes both), the experience can be isolating (which depending on the context is good or bad) and the gear is neither convenient nor fashionable. Similar concerns were however voiced about radio, television, computers, and mobile devices before we hit the sweet spot where their benefits began to outweigh their (socio-cultural, technological, and economic) negatives.

Technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing. - Steve Jobs

We’re are the very start of this journey with VR/AR, and while it may be years before we have the same degree of experience and literacy in the medium that we currently have with print, film, TV and the web, it’s really exciting to be involved in the early experiments that will ultimately shape that understanding.

Gertie the Dinosaur, Winsor McCay, 1914 — look for the early mixed reality in the final few seconds. :)

If you’re interested in following along, I’ve created another Twitter account focused on exploring these ideas — oorümchi.