Open Your Eyes to Virtual Reality

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I’m not the first tech guy to get enthusiastic about virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) – and I certainly won’t be the last. The promises of VR and AR have been dangled in front of us for decades. But now, I’m excited to see, we’re seeing those promises come to fruition. Even better: open source is among the reasons why.

alienware desktop dell monitor virtual reality vr setup

VR is appealing because it’s human nature to seek experiences that expand our viewpoints. Societally, we regularly look for new ways to experience “reality” – particularly in extending what “reality” might feel like. We jump out of airplanes, drive fast cars, and indulge in other escapist experiences. We reach for the unknown as a way to expand our consciousness, to try on new worlds, and to develop creative solutions by getting (quite literally) a different view.

The problems with many such escapist experiences is the need to develop true expertise (it’s more fun to ski well than to ski poorly, or so I’m told) and most such hobbies have some amount of risk (such as breaking your leg when you don’t know how to ski). VR allows us these experiences with much less risk, not to mention far less expense (have you priced ski gear lately?).

Thus immersive experiences have been a goal for quite a long time, along a spectrum of “reality” – from the actual reality at one end, to virtual reality at the other, and augmented reality somewhere in the middle.

We could have a fun time pinpointing the genesis of VR, particularly in terms that served someone’s business goal. One option is the Clairol Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, where 40 private booths on a slowly circling turntable had “special devices [to] show the ladies how they would look in various hair shades and styles.” Essentially it was a set of mirrors that overlaid hair color and beehive hairdos onto a woman’s face. In the 90s individuals could accomplish the same thing with a Windows application, Cosmopolitan Virtual Makeover, demonstrating that “try on another reality” is an old goal – often with a vendor using it as an opportunity to sell its products.

So, why have VR and AR gotten so popular lately? For many years, we had wonderful ideas but we lacked the technology to deliver it. You didn’t feel immersed. Headsets were bulky, resolution was small, and computers lacked the power to process enough data. Like any other technology, we’ve simply hit an inflection point where VR is now easily consumable. Dell’s VR Guru Gary Radburn recently shared the three ways we now have for consuming VR content at different prices and levels of experience.

What’s made VR more feasible has been a drive of the industry towards mobile. VR – as a real option – has been a side benefit of the rise of mobile phone and mobile gaming. A mobile-centric development process has pushed the computer industry to make electronic packages smaller and to build optics that are not (as) clunky. Screens are smaller and brighter. Eyepieces and other gizmos are more comfortable. Battery life is improving.

The shift to a mobile world changes people’s mind sets, too. We expect information to be accessible and immediate. We consume things in new ways, such as watching video on a plane or reading a novel while waiting in a doctor’s office. Plus, mobile tech ubiquity makes all of this more affordable, and thus more acceptable to consumer audiences.

And while we still worry a bit about looking or behaving awkwardly (e.g. being a glasshole), in some circumstances we’re happy to overlook it. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before it’s socially acceptable to look like a dork; we went through this with wearing a Bluetooth headset and talking in public on a phone. But we don’t always care. If you’re playing a VR game in the comfort of your own home, it doesn’t matter what you look like. And nobody is expecting adorableness in a business environment where VR is just a form of business machinery (such as eye exam equipment or a training device).

I also think there are vast opportunities for open source in VR. I am excited by the availability of immersive experiences to those who could not have them. As with so many other tech areas, open source lowers the barrier to entry.

This is a subject close to our hearts at {code}; last year, we spent some time touring the technology and illustrating the impact of open source on the VR industry.

The first thing we need is hardware for VR, which traditionally has been very proprietary. VR games like Guitar Hero are tied to specific hardware, for example. But now, the control software for the HTC Vive is open source. That gives plenty of options to developers who want to create a VR application because they see a need for one – and not (necessarily) because they see a startup-fundable-market for a profitable product. That is, if you want to integrate VR hardware with a golf application, or manufacturing processes, or architectural “experiences” that permit a client to truly visualize her home renovation project… go right ahead. But if only a tiny niche needs your VR application – that’s okay, too.

My enthusiasm does not blind me to the challenges. VR still has a long way to go. For example, intimacy, or our sense of immersion is governed by our sense of touch. That part of VR tech hasn’t matured as fast as the parts that appeal to our auditory or visual senses.

We also have plenty of questions to answer in regard to the creepiness of the technology. In a recent VR demo, I looked at a work colleague’s face while wearing goggles. The software recognized her; a heads-up display showed her name and LinkedIn profile. That’s both wonderful (just think how it could improve trade show experiences!) and disturbing – particularly in privacy terms.

Ultimately, VR lets us tell stories and express ourselves in new ways. I see these technologies – particularly in the hands of the open source community – as a new gateway to communicate human creativity.

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