Extended Reality and the Future of Digital Interaction
Last month I had the opportunity to attend a virtual reality meeting for the first time and it proved to be quite a futuristic experience. To show up on the meeting, I put on a Vive headset and transported myself to the digital world. Just as I logged into Prospect (software for exploring 3D models in VR) at the scheduled time, I found Shane (CEO of IrisVR) wandering around a table with a virtual scale model of what would be the scene of our guided tour. The purpose of the VR meeting was showcasing the multi user functionality they had recently launched, the precise one which allowed us to share this virtual space. As we started having a conversation, even though I was talking to a generic avatar with no special features aside from a name tag on top, other characteristics such as visual and auditory immersion simulated the feeling of a real interaction.
Three more people joined the VR meeting and we were ready to jump directly into the scale model in the middle of the room. Suddenly, without giving notice, one member of the group ant-manned into the scale model, shrinking to pocket size in the process. We could see his miniature version walking around which quickly triggered some laughs. We all jumped right behind him and followed our guide’s tour through the, now real sized, scale model. After 20 or so minutes of VR extravaganza the meeting came to its end and I was back in my real life room. This brief but powerful experience sparked lots of questions and ideas regarding the implications of XR on digital interaction’s future.
The Virtual Realm
The immediate question following the experience was: Why, despite not having a live video from the other person’s face like in an ordinary video chat or using voice chat as in a typical call, the interaction in VR felt more comparable to a real one? The answer appeared self-evident: immersion or presence in the virtual environment. The portion of the human being that was transferred from the physical to the virtual world was the fundamental change. The way VR simulates external stimuli and feeds them into our senses effectively transports a small part of our beings into the digital world. In the case of human interaction, this transported part of our being is in a shared intermediate space in the virtual realm that effectively narrows the space gap between both personas. This middle ground made of bits and pixels is a new virtual reality in which we are able to interact.
In conventional video chat, we are still fully present in the real world. Our presence is directly linked to our surroundings, our senses capture input from the physical world and our concentration tunes it down in order to focus on the flat window in front of us that connects us to the other side of the screen. Conceptually, VR transports part of your being, using simulated stimuli as real as visual, auditory, haptic and others can get today, to the virtual world. The received artificial stimuli simulates our presence in another environment. The physical world is partially blocked to allow the senses to transport or ‘fool’ the being into the illusion of the virtual world. This generates a level of proximity akin to real life interaction as we receive comparable stimuli. As our percentages, so to speak, of immersion increase in the virtual world with better technology, the ‘physicality’ of the shared space becomes greater. The virtual becomes real to us and our senses, it becomes tangible.
The Technological Frontier
With presence greatly influenced by the technological advancements, how far will our feeling of presence in the virtual realm go as we progress in the maturity timeline of this technology? With the power of current VR headsets we are able to achieve a great deal of presence, fooling to some point our visual and auditory senses. As more senses get better simulated, the percentage of presence in the virtual space will continuously increase, possibly making the virtual space as ‘real’ as real life.
In parallel to the simulation of our senses, the operational side of VR is also advancing with great features: standalone and cable free headsets, higher fields of view and resolutions, outside movement tracking, 5G connection for content streaming, hands and eye tracking, comfortable and lightweight headsets for long sessions and surrounding recognition. Pack those features into a headset along with haptics and complex avatars and what today felt immersive will be homologous to the comparison between brick phones and today’s smartphones.
While the current infancy phase corresponds to hardware, software and ease of use limitations, some important milestones are taking place. Current headsets depend on secondary devices for computing power (PCs and smartphones) but a key shift is taking place with the introduction of standalone headsets. The appearance of standalone headsets empowers the VR medium on its own right, the self-realisation of a new way to interact with the digital world independent of other devices. The current bonds linking VR to PCs and smartphone will eventually disappear and it will become a platform on its own right coinciding with the rapid evolution phase. Once the maturity phase and worldwide ubiquitous use is achieved, huge opportunities and possibilities will come forth.
The Synchronised Mind
When XR reaches the maturity phase, it will become so integrated with our daily activities that it might replace PCs and smartphones altogether as the most used platform. The X factor that will tilt the scales towards XR is that we are three dimensional beings in terms of space, we interact with our surroundings and use more than our fingers or thumbs to interact in it. We use the movement of our bodies in space: arms, legs, fingers, hands, eyes, gestures and combinations of these to move through and change our environment. The differences of interacting in a 3-dimensional space in contrast to inputting data to a 2-dimensional screen are quite drastic. You don’t have to tilt your head down and stare at a 6-inch screen and use your thumbs to interact with the virtual world. You may interact with your surroundings using your whole body and the whole space might become the interactive canvas. In this state of technology, the interaction gap with the virtual world will narrow even more, what our thoughts and desires intend to do and the way to virtually execute them will become directly linked. XR won’t be the last of the systems to narrow the gap even further, eventually it will be reduced to such extents that our thoughts will be synchronised with the virtual realm in a 1 to 1 relation.
In such scenario, when our minds are completely synchronised with the digital world, when this 1 to 1 relation is accomplished and effectively converts our thoughts directly into actions, when complete presence is achieved, how ‘real’ will the virtual world become? How ‘virtual’ will the real world become? Or is this all just a bunch of virtual insanity?