Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg was in New York recently, attending the Engadget Expand NY 2014 event, which took place on November 7th and 8th. While there, he participated in a panel discussion hosted by Engadget’s Ben Gilbert, exploring the subject of Back to Reality: VR Beyond Gaming. Also appearing on the panel were:
- Marte Roel, co-founder, BeAnotherLab and the open-source project called The Machine To Be Another, which is designed to explore the relationship of identity and empathy through VR immersion. The approach is particularly seen as a means of helping in conflict resolution (by allowing a person to experience a situation from another’s perspective). The group is perhaps most widely known for the Gender Swap Experiment, in which participants experience the illusion of being in one another’s body
- Matt Bell, co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Matterport, a company providing a means to imaging interior spaces and reproducing them as 3D models which have the potential to be utilised in a number of ways.
At just over 34 minutes in length, the panel isn’t long, and the opportunity for discussion of questions and views is further reduced by the first ten minutes being devoted to each of the panelists giving an overview of their particular platform / interest. However, once past this, there are some interesting observations made on the status of virtual reality outside of the games environment, some of which tend to echo commentary from elsewhere.
For example, discussion is held around the idea that immersive VR is more than simply seeing and hearing; we rely on other senses as well – smell and touch in particular. The latter is perhaps particularly relevant as the ability to generate a natural sense of feedback through touch, say through a haptic glove – is in many ways essential to move one beyond being something of an observer of a digital 3D environment to being a participant within it.
Marte Roel particularly notes this being the case with The Machine To Be Another, where users can use haptic capabilities to interact with the characters they meet by shaking hands and so on. Ebbe Altberg also observes a little later than haptics can help one enter more deeply into the illusion created by VR, noting that while it is possible to see the texture of a surface in a digital environment, the brain knows it is simply seeing an image, but if you can also feel the texture of that surface, the brain is further tricked into a deeper level of immersiveness and engagement – and move it beyond what James Cameron recently referred to as the “I can stand and look around” situation we currently have.
The flip side to this, as Ebbe Altberg also points out, is that the fidelity of the “real” experience – sight, sound, smell, touch, isn’t necessary in every potential use case for VR. There will be situations (indeed, there all ready are) where the full sense of immersiveness isn’t required; as such, over-emphasising things one way or another in terms of requirements or prerequisites would be a mistake, as there is liable to be a broad middle ground.
Even so, it cannot be denied that the technology is – for the time being, at least – one of the more obvious problems facing VR when it comes to mass adoption. There’s no denying ht Oculus Rift and its imitators and competition are still cumbersome, awkward and unappealing, lacking both convenience of use and portability. This is going to have to change – as the panel acknowledges. Indeed, we are already seeing attempts to improve the overall form factor – take the Zeiss cinemizer for example, or the Vuzix Wrap headsets. The problem here is that of price; even at $599, the Vuzix Wrap 1200DX VR is liable to be around $300 more than the Oculus, a pice point liable to keep people thinking VR more a “geeky” adjunct to activities than central part of them.
Ebbe Altberg appears confident this could occur within a couple of years. He’s potentially a lot more optimistic than Oculus VR CEO Brendan Iribe, who, when talking to Techcrunch in May 2014, suggested it could be another five years before people will be pulling compact (and presumably low-cost) VR glasses from their pocket and using them with the same ease they do with a part of sunglasses today.
Nor is it necessarily just the headsets; it’s the other accoutrements as well – haptic gloves, controllers, sensors systems, recognition systems. As the panel again acknowledge, these all need to mature and become more widely accepted. They also, frankly, need to become a lot cheaper. High Fidelity may well sign the praises of the STEM system, but it still dumps a minimum $300 extra on the cost of entry into some VR environments. Perhaps the answer lies in the improved integration and capabilities with existing hardware, as has been the case with mobile technologies: the more integrated things have become within the mobile ‘phone, the more central it has become to our everyday lives, something Matt Bell indirectly touches upon.
For a discussion on the future of VR outside of gaming, the conversation is surprisingly light; familiar verticals are pointed to as being very well suited to VR – education, health, virtual tourism, etc – but there’s no real probing of potentials. This is in some ways a shame; however, as Ebbe Altberg points out, predicting the overall future for VR isn’t that straightforward, given it could well cut through everything in its applicability:
It’s like an infinite number of potential use-cases for it… When people ask what’s the killer app, there’s going to be lots of killer apps, just like it is on the Internet in general or in the world in general. So I think of VR as a horizontal thing, something that you can able to apply to almost anything you’re trying to do.
Even so, it would have been interesting to hear thoughts on just how VR will be leveraged to a position of being not just an ancillary aspect of how we do certain things, but a piece of technology people see as vital to their every day lives as their mobile ‘phone. Will the catalyst simply because the hardware is available? Might it be come about as a result of multiple independent uses of VR which infiltrate our lives until it becomes an accepted part of everyday life – a quiet revolution, if you will, rather than the kind of sudden “whiz-bang, here it is!” that seems to be anticipated?
When limited to a 24 minute time frame, there’s obviously only so much that can be discussed in such a forum; as such, I couldn’t help be feel the topic might have been done more justice had it been given more time and a broader panel of participants. Nevertheless, what is there is worth listening to, and it has to be said the Ebbe Altberg does a respectable job to hoisting SL’s and the Lab’s flag and profile.