Is Ambient Technology Antithetical to VR?

Last week, Walt Mossberg wrote his final column for Recode.

His career began twenty six years ago, with a weekly tech panel for the Wall Street Journal; from there, he lent his voice to both Recode and The Verge. In this sweet goodbye he muses about where technology was in 1991, and where we will see it progress over the next twenty six years.

His biggest takeaway is that technology has until now had an incredibly high level of friction, and that is slowly beginning to change.

Just think about the internet. The internet used to be a destination of sorts. You would go to a computer and travel “online.” There were terrible noises (ahh, dial up), endless waiting as you finally connected, and once you did? You were still only at your home page. From there you had to journey on to the actual site you were trying to visit.

Now? Most of us are constantly connected, either through data or WiFi, often on our phones and our computers simultaneously. Notifications are a constant fact of life, and instantaneous connection is never more than a tap away.

Mossberg posits that this shift will become even more extreme. That soon we will see a push away from gadgets, towards something entirely new — ambient technology.

The concept is both simple and incredibly difficult to achieve. He posits a future where the computer “may entirely disappear, waiting to be activated by a voice command, a person entering the room, a change in blood chemistry, a shift in temperature, a motion. Maybe even just a thought.”

Of course, he means disappear to the consumer — there would still be machinery powering these interactions.

The Ambient Future

Imagine standing in your living room. You want to watch the latest trending sitcom, so you flop down on the couch and look at the wall. Immediately, a window appears in the centre of your vision.

You nod, and the video begins to play.

The doorbell rings — you glance away, and the video senses your attention drift and pauses. You eye the door, and a display pops up. It’s the Chinese food you ordered.

You flex your fingers, and a drone heads over to the door, opens it, and takes the food from another drone. It brings it to you.

You turn your attention back to the virtual screen, and within a second, you’re laughing along.

That’s an intriguing future, but the hard part isn’t interactions like those — the hard part is setup and maintenance. Truly ambient technology means no more software updates. No struggle to make the sensor on your Vive integrate with the new patch from your antivirus program. Never again getting carpal tunnel from sitting the wrong way at your desk.

Ambient technology needs to be so simple it doesn’t require a tutorial or an instruction manual.

In the same way that no one needs an explanation for how to use a fork or open a door, ambient technology would be learned in childhood just like putting on pants and sharing crayons.

The question in our minds at Hammer & Tusk is whether the idea of ambient technology is antithetical to virtual reality, or its future.

Virtual & Augmented Reality vs Ambient Technology

There are two possibilities for VR: it merges with AR, or it breaks away entirely. Right now, the popular thought is that VR will eventually merge with AR.

Devices will allow users to either block out the world or supplement it, depending on the nature of the task. Working on a word document? Create a screen that blocks out an area of sight and work on that. Watching a movie? Get rid of the world and descend into a 360 experience.

This potentially means sacrificing something in terms of total immersion — a device that can disappear to allow the real world in will likely never (read: not as we currently imagine the technology) block it out entirely. We’ll still feel the ground under our feet, and be constrained by the size of the space we’re in. Still, in such a future VR seems to walk hand-in-hand with ambient tech.

What about the other vision? Imagine a world where we move away from “spatial computing” to double-down on the strengths and weaknesses of AR and VR. Virtual reality becomes completely immersive, completely indistinguishable from reality — but to do so, it loses some of the flexibility of augmented reality. The focus becomes treadmills, haptic clothes, anything to erase reality.

A virtual experience is indistinguishable from a real one, except that it requires “entering” and “exiting” — the transition will never be invisible.

This possibility flies in the face of ambient technology, which wants to erase that friction of “using” and “not using”. If seamless, frictionless technology is the future, there may not be a place in it for truly immersive VR, except perhaps as a destination technology — the movie theatre or theme park of the future.

Ambient technology seems inevitable; we move closer to it every day. If that’s the case, we need to start planning for it now — not in 25 years, when everything we’ve worked on is suddenly obsolete.

Originally written by Wren Handman for www.hammerandtusk.com.
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