A future without screens

How VR is rapidly changing the way we interact with technology

Shaun Roncken
The Startup


It’s unfortunate to think, but you probably know the nooks and crannies of Facebook better than your childhood bedroom. Our adoption of technology into our daily routine has turned what used to be a stroll to the end of the driveway to pick up the paper, to a roll to the edge of the bed and a groggy press of a button.

But just as the shift towards the digital world of social media and screens was a huge depart from newspapers and post-dinner radio shows, this ‘new normal’ is on the brink of another seismic shift.

If technologists and futurists are at all right, very soon we’ll have retreated from the end of the driveway, to the edge of the bed, to a pair of goggles.

The online world we’ve become so comfortable with is moving from separate screens to virtual space — a change that’s about more than just how technology looks, but how we actually interact with it.

Our adoption of virtual reality will not only beg us to reflect upon our social behaviour, it will raise some very practical, and very interesting questions about something we take for granted: Space.

How will we interact with this new dimension? How are companies already starting to think about this new interaction with space? And how will that change the way we interact with technology?

A brief history of technology (and how we interact with it)

As a friend and I discussed the future of VR a few weeks ago, the conversation repeatedly sniffed its way back along the same path: “Sure, VR will be a cool experience — I’m looking forward to riding a roller coaster whenever I want — but I still don’t understand how we’re going to interact with two dimensional aspects in this 3D space?”

This conversation is interesting because it forces regular, everyday people to think about interfaces: a topic historically reserved for computer engineers in the damp, low light environments they’ve probably never worked in, but are fun to imagine nevertheless.

The interface you’re familiar with today, like the smartphone screen or laptop you’re reading this on, is called a Graphical User Interface (GUI), and was popularized by Xerox, Apple, and Microsoft during the 80s.

We’ve come a long way with how we interact with tech.

In its earliest days, it was a cryptic, highly-coded experience that involved typing a basic set of commands onto a foreboding black screen.

Over time, the personal computing Gods (Jobs, Gates, etc…) made piecemeal improvements so that delivering commands to your computer became simple and intuitive. Typed commands were slowly replaced by symbolic icons that could be clicked and dragged by a mouse pointer — actions we take for granted today but were huge innovations at the time.

Now, our experiences with present day graphical interfaces have become second nature.

Our browsers know the words we want. Our mobile devices allow us to drag, pinch, and touch, selecting exactly what we place.

In short, after roughly 30–35 years of personal computing, we’ve reached a point where everyone can use a computer, including your grandma. And if she can’t, it’s because you haven’t bought her a tablet. (Her remote control has 38 more buttons than the cockpit of a 747. She can definitely work a tablet.)

What’s fascinating about all of this is that we’re on the precipice of a brand new era of computing just at the moment we’ve mastered the previous era.

The things we’ve become used to experiencing and designing at an expert level — namely, interfaces — are the things designers and users will have to examine yet again, in a brand new way.

Designing for virtual space

Take Netflix, for example, with its remarkably simple user experience. Visit the site, scroll through a list of films, click on a selection, and watch. But how does this look when the interface isn’t necessarily a screen? All of a sudden there are a handful of brand new wrinkles that must be considered.

The first wrinkle is space: something we don’t have to consider in a traditional experience.

Virtual Reality is a whole different ride. We put on the goggles, select Netflix, and immediately find ourselves in a log cabin. As we peer around, we realize that we’re perched on a red sofa situated before a large, 60 inch television screen — the first time we encounter a sense of virtual scale.

Netflix in VR (complete with snowy mountain backdrop).

No longer do we have to rely on Sony or LG to produce an HD television for us. The cabin we visit in Netflix’s world offers one of the largest televisions I’ve ever glared at, and they’ve mounted it inside an expansive stone fireplace. Owning a 60 inch screen within my 5 inch screen was not something I anticipated before dipping my toes into a virtual world (not to mention the gorgeous mountain range pouring through the cabin window panes).

Before we’ve even engaged with the application’s primary function we have to engage with the space. This sparks several other questions, not just for Netflix, but for the handful of digital destinations that everyone is comfortable with.

Think about Google, YouTube, and Facebook. How will we navigate basic menus that are presently 2D?

How will something as simple as Google search manifest itself in a new reality? Will we explore with our voice? Our hands? Will we walk around menus to access certain capabilities?

And we haven’t even touched on how these environments will look, feel, and sound.

Getting your hands dirty in a virtual world

As it stands, there are a host of brand new navigational features for us to learn all over again. What used to be a simple point and click now varies depending on the device we use. Some devices ask us to navigate a set of crosshairs with the movement of our head (instead of the mouse we used to guide our hand). To select an object, icon, or piece of text, we click a button mounted on the side of the headset.

In other cases, we can strap on a set of gloves to manipulate objects within the virtual space or select items from a menu.

And finally, after all these years, our voice is finally poised to make use of itself on a regular basis. Still a clumsy afterthought on our mobile devices, browsing with our voice feels legitimately useful in a space without a mouse or keyboard.

When we’re immersed in a virtual world with endless possibility, how ridiculous does it feel to revert to real world crutches like a keyboard to find what we’re looking for?

All of a sudden, our foremost methods of interacting with technology becomes skeuomorphic. Ever tried to use a VR keyboard? I’ll save you the trouble. It’s not good.

But yes, there will be growing pains

If history is a marker, the stage we’re about to pass through is going to be the most interesting, yet laughable era of virtual reality. Think Geocities for the early web. Think poking on early Facebook. Think Seaman for Sega Dreamcast.

There is no greater proof than watching this early demo video of virtual Facebook, which feels like a board meeting brainstorm that was broadcast in real time. Facebook is throwing every idea they can fathom, both old (yet another version of paint) and new (photo spheres) at the cork board to see what will stick.

While the competing tech companies hash out the nuts and bolts of our interface experience, and slowly develop a broad set of standard navigational features, the next logical question seems to be how and where will we interact within these virtual spaces?

Despite our fears of growing isolation, many experts are hopeful, predicting that VR will actually help us connect with others like never before.

In a recent TED Talk, director and VR pioneer Chris Milk doesn’t refer to headsets as a tech platform — he refers to them as a humanity platform. However idealistic (and cheesy) the statement may sound, he describes a key element in the history of storytelling and human interaction.

Ever since we’ve possessed the ability to converse, we’ve shared our experiences with others — through oral culture, books, radio, television, film, and the web.

What is consistent across all of these mediums is that we must, to varying degrees, use our imagination to empathize with the protagonist or the storyteller. No matter how immersive the experience, we’re always filling in the blanks with our imagination.

What separates virtual reality from previous mediums, Milk suggests, is that we’re finally able to experience a story, in a visceral way, from the storyteller’s perspective.

Instead of telling stories about people ‘over there’ — whether they’re refugees, those suffering from extreme drought conditions, or cave men hunting a mammoth — VR has the power to put us directly in their environment. The story becomes about ‘us’.

And this is why experts, when discussing a variety of virtual topics, from sport to basic VR tutorials, commonly refer to it as an empathy machine.

The most fascinating moment of the tutorial above (trust me, I was expecting those moments to clock in at zero) is the host’s excitement, not at the Cirque de Soleil performance, or the weightless moments spent floating in our solar system, but at sitting in a Mongolian ger, experiencing the nuances of a foreign culture.

Sure, the explosive bells and whistles are great, but it’s interesting to see that one of our primary attractions is to connect with others and explore their environments in such a curious way. Again, with virtual reality, you’re not internalizing someone else’s experience, you’re a part of it.

And VR’s transcendent ability doesn’t cease here. Milk takes the idea of social immersion a step further, suggesting that the spaces we visit may soon exceed representations of physical places.

Instead of visiting someone’s home, or meeting on a faraway beach, we may also have direct access to someone’s thoughts and feelings. Milk refers to this as ‘surfing our raw emotions’ and the implications are huge. Picture yourself, reclining on a beach at sunset — a group of friends and locals at your side — with a direct pipeline to their emotions.

Instead of relying on their words and your imagination to internalize their experience, what if you were a part of it?

Will VR make social media truly social?

These social and spatial innovations will not only prove transformative for individuals like you and I, they’ll have a huge impact on the tech companies we’re so familiar with.

At present, we have a lifetime of music at our fingertips — one that’s recently been tailored to our individual preferences by way of weekly playlist recommendations and the like.

It’s no stretch to think that companies like Spotify have already started to dream up ways to soundtrack your virtual experiences: An ethereal, melancholy mix for beach sunsets, or perhaps a customized score that’s synced to a group’s prevailing emotional response to a shared space.

The impact will obviously bleed into the physical aspects of these spaces as well. In the same way that Google autofills your browser search based on personal history, you can be certain the places you visit will soon be tailored to your individual preferences.

Should Google, or another tech behemoth get creative, perhaps we’ll have spaces inspired by our favourite artists or episodic experiences in the vein of our favourite directors (fuelled by our Netflix history) — all of them malleable and customizable as the technology follows the inevitable trajectory of Moore’s Law.

Of course, we haven’t yet touched on the lasting impact of these spaces and shared experiences as they’re recorded and saved — something that Mark Zuckerberg is very excited about.

Although Facebook is still in the early stages of VR, Zuckerberg has discussed the medium’s ability to preserve key moments we’ve captured, whether it’s a first birthday or a marriage proposal.

We’ll be able to invite friends and relatives from across the globe to share these events with us, but the most powerful element of this feature will be the lasting quality of the experience.

In our virtual future, Facebook is poised to become a time travelling machine that allows people to step in and out of their favourite memories whenever they please.

Science fiction writers have been hinting at all of these virtual possibilities for half a century, and our technology seems to have finally caught up to our dreams.

Of course, we’ve had a couple of generations to work out the less spectacular elements of personal computing (namely interfaces) and we’ll have a few more to kinks to work out in the coming years.

That said, we’ve certainly come a long way from single line commands.

Ready to build your virtual world? You’ve got ideas, we’ve got talent. Let’s talk.

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