Your Reality is Virtual

Wake up, Neo. The Matrix has you…

Or does it?

Some of the best writers in modern science fiction, from the Wachowskis (The Matrix), to Christopher Nolan (Inception), to Ernest Cline (Ready Player One), have artfully performed this thought experiment. It begins with the question: Are we living in an actual reality, or just a simulation?

If you ask Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, SpaceX, and Solar City, the answer is fairly obvious. Last June at the Code Conference, Musk pointed to the rapid advancement of video games and graphics technology for some very clear evidence for his argument: “If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then games will become indistinguishable from reality,” he says. “Even if that rate of advancement drops by a thousand from what it is now … the odds that we are living our lives in base reality, that is, real reality, is one in billions.”

I’ll let that one sink in.

Don’t worry, the somewhat good news is that the answer to the question doesn’t really matter to our day-to-day lives. If we are living in a simulation, there is no known way to verify it. It is perhaps a thought experiment best left to the philosophers and scientists. In the mean time, we can go on believing whichever reality we’d prefer — Barring any interventions from Morpheus, of course.

And yet, we are beginning to see the early signs of such a future — one where we have the technological capacity to create experiences that are indistinguishable from actual reality. Given the importance of such an advance in our society, it is our responsibility to begin to explore what this future may look like, the enabling technologies’ potential, and which companies will propel us into the virtual dawn of a new age.

The Interface Question

Predicting the future of the two technologies that will enable these experiences, Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), is difficult. This is because, by pure coincidence, we are at a crossroads of two distinct paths on which our civilization can journey.

The first path follows the progress of conversational user interface — the idea that software will eventually become entirely invisible, and will be controlled instead through a combination of voice commands interacting with the connected objects around us. This is the path of Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google Assistant. While all of these companies are still several years, and several key breakthroughs away from this future, some are doing a better job than others. Important questions around the type of hardware needed, and natural language processing are slowly being answered. This path is the most likely foundation to an “augmented” reality. We can even envision some visual interfaces remaining, that act entirely in the context of the objects and locations we interact with.

The second path veers strongly in the opposite direction. Rather than the UI disappearing, it instead becomes our reality, or “virtual” reality. Every sense in our bodies, from sight to sound, from touch to taste, would be replicated through software. Depending on which book you read or movie you watch, this is usually seen as a good thing if you are aware of it (Ready Player One), and a bad thing if you are not (The Matrix).

Since we will likely remain at this crossroads for the next year or so, it might be best to look at current state of VR and AR, which companies are investing in it, and see how these foundations may transport us sooner rather than later.

State of The Virtual Union — Home VR

Last year, we began to see categories of VR and AR platforms emerge. At the time of this writing, there are two categories already in-market, and a third on the near horizon.

On one side of the spectrum is ‘desktop-class’ VR — the most realistic, most powerful form of virtual experiences. If you want to enjoy the furthest advances of virtual technology, this is the category for you. In it, you will find familiar companies and their products, such as Oculus and it’s flagship headset, The Oculus Rift. Also in this category are products like the HTC Vive, Playstation VR, and even some up and comers like Fove, promising even newer capabilities like eye-tracking. Another member of this group on the AR side is Microsoft with Halolens.

The ideal VR setup — headset, touch controllers, sensors, and a powerful PC.

While customers of these products are promised the best-available experience of Virtual and Augmented reality, there are significant drawbacks, and the biggest one is cost. The ideal setup of the Oculus Rift includes more than just the headset. The $200 Oculus Touch controllers are needed to better replicate the sense of touch rather than a standard a game console controller. At least one $80 Oculus Sensor is needed to track movements and bring those into the virtual experience. And of course, none of this is possible without a next-generation PC to power all of this hardware. Most computers on the market today don’t yet support the requirements that VR graphics demands, and so a handful of $800+ gaming PCs are customers’ only options. Overall, there is a hefty price tag of at least $1,700 for the full Oculus Rift experience. Other players in this space are either slightly cheaper, or much more expensive.

I’ll remind readers that all of this is fine — early forms of emerging technologies will always be unaffordable for most people. At this stage, the industry is inventing custom solutions and developing economies of scale that will bring costs down in the long term. In a few short years, there is no reason to assume we wouldn’t see a similar price drop we saw with laptops, HDTVs, and smartphones.

In the mean time, what of the second category of VR? Is there a ‘VR for the rest of us?’ And what about this emerging category, yet to be released? Check back soon to learn about Mobile VR, and the very interesting new category, that will carry adoption of virtual experiences to new heights.

Coming soon: Your Reality is Mobile

Thanks for reading. Follow me on Medium or Twitter @thatslogical for more VR stuff, as well as other logical thoughts.

Like space? Check out some further reading on the new space race: Boldly Go — The Spaceflight Renaissance