Virtual and Augmented Reality – about as close to where dragons actually dwell…

I’m incredibly excited about Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). I’ve played with both for a long while now, and been looking into it for ages. It’s one of those things I’ve been muttering excitedly about, but getting time to shout from the roof.

We’re at a stage where the technology is getting real. Between Magic Leap, Oculus, HTC Vive, the Hololens and all the way to the fantastic Google Cardboard, there’s a lot going on with headsets that will twist the way we see things.

Then on top of that the explosion in wearables make this even more exciting – we are so close to being able to sit down with a phone and watch as controller, with headphones on, and experiencing a game through a headset. The gaming and media fanatic in me is so damned buzzing with excitement…I…don’t…know…what…to…say…

So I’ll say it in a pic.

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FALLOUT VR – I’m coming for you.

Ahem.

But you know what, I hope that the VR and AR don’t get restricted to games and small scale stuff. I went to a VR convention late last year and it was all about games, and real estate walk throughs. Mid 2015 I also tried the shopping concept that PWC has put together using the Oculus Rift (HERE‘s their blog post on the subject).

I love the idea of wearing the headset and physically turning around to watch explosions, turn a hat around to look at it, and so on…but in truth it was a bit limiting. It’s cute, I love games, I like shopping…

But it’s not going to make me come back, and that is the big problem with VR and AR at this stage. Beyond an initial wow factor, most VR experiences obsess with replicating reality. In September 2015 Netflix announced their partnership with Oculus and released a VR living room…to enjoy watching movies. I can’t think of anything more distracting than replacing my comfortable living room for an uncomfortable virtual one to watch a flat screen experience.

The attempts to replicate the shopping experience, or banking (something Commonwealth Bank is experimenting with at their Innovation Lab) or that fancy new apartment, in VR miss out on the things that really make people BUY, or engage with a brand.

The quality of the experience. People engage emotionally with quality – this isn’t done by replicating something they could otherwise experience. It’s done by augmenting that experience and challenging them mentally and emotionally. A quality experience, with quality content, gets people to come back – and better, it’s more sustainable. By building a sustainable long term production model, people have a better sense of what to expect, and a better sense of how they can immerse themselves and self-manipulate their performance in the experience.

The same thing happened with 3D movies – there’s a reason why JBHifi still puts Avatar on their demo TVs. The 2009 movie is still the best example of 3D on a TV. That’s kinda depressing, because bad executions like Hercules just ruin the experience for everyone, and ruin the potential of the technology because the bad production breaks the immersion, which in turn disengages the viewer.

For VR and AR to avoid this fate it has to avoid the niche audience of gaming and movies. The audiences in these industries are niche – it’s a costly exercise both for the gamers, and the developers, to implement VR, and it will only be effective in a niche audience. The vast majority of gamers just want to play games. And quality games do not always make for quality virtualised experiences.

The other factor is the problem of imitation. If VR is currently replicating reality, then it’s missing out on the incredible technology that can be layered on top of reality. Virtual Reality is a subset of Augmented Reality. This isn’t replicating reality – it’s manipulating our perception of reality to augment our perception and capabilities.

This video from the team at Magic Leap comes the closest to revealing how important this distinction is:

So this is a basic video game experience that overlays bad guys on your environment around you. It starts with some floating email boxes, and floating videos but at around 27secs, gets insanely cool when it overlays data onto the assortment of physical toy guns. This is the key to the potential of VR – as an augmentation tool to make reality much more powerful.

The Microsoft Hololens team recently released this video imagining the future of the Superbowl with VR headsets. The floating player profiles are actually the worst part as they are distracting from the experience. My favourite parts are at the start from 25s to about 40s – where the headset displays the game on the entire wall, expanding the TV experience, then allows the cool hip young things to display a 3D model of the stadium on the table. Beautiful.

This piece from Pete Sena says it quite well. It’s about mixed realities – collaboration goes in new directions with this concept. Translation, hearing, visuals, connectivity are all up for transformation when augmented. This interview/article is a great background read on the concept of augmenting/mixing reality.

Here buds are a great example of the potential of mixed reality – they are largeish ear buds that can filter and enhance/alter the audio coming into your ear. They’ve taken a live music approach, and partenered up with the Coachella wealthy-hipster music fest. The Here buds will allow the attendees to filter the music to hear how the artists really want to present their music, rather than the windy/echoey/crappy speaker experience at the festival. It’s a nice test, with the real game changer potentially what this could to to audio around you in the real world – on the fly language translation, interpretations, real world sound filtering and updates.

Partnered up with a headset and a control, you could be manipulating an experience beyond what we can currently imagine.

That concept was the driving force behind the Google Glass project. There has been debate over whether it was a failure, but it wasn’t – it has helped push in 2 distinct directions – it confirmed that the team’s instinct was right – augmenting reality through wearables was both possible and incredibly exciting. It just had to look approachable – the quality of the experience was diminished by the over-production of the headsets. Google Cardboard is the other direction, now with 5 million headsets in the wild. Google Cardboard is the best transformative device I have at the moment – the foldable, kit nature, paired with the emphasis on simple 360 video, improves the quality tenfold. 360 video doesn’t emphasise rendered objects, or virtual space. It takes flat screen video (which we already know and love), and makes us physically interact with it by augmenting our perception to believe it’s all around us.

And it does it in a piece of cardboard that I don’t mind losing, or letting other people borrow. This to me is the ultimate in quality experience. It manipulates my expectations and ends up augmenting the reality I already know (video) by adding dimensionality.

This ultimate accessibility is enhanced by how easy it is now to take 360 degree photos (if you haven’t, go and grab the Cardboard Camera app) – by opening up the capability of 360video and cardboard, Google is building a culture that is expecting mixed reality. Rather than jumping into the full VR/AR experience, people will expect connected experiences that augment, rather than distract, from what they really want to do – live their lives.

What is the sustainable future for VR/AR, if I’m so leery of the current gaming centric approach? I think commercial nature needs to get involved to turn these concepts from R&D projects into something more real, and with a real drive for creating a holistic customer experience.

Replicating bricks and mortar is the wrong angle, though – if you want people to shop, don’t replicate the shop. Augment their experience by showing them why they should shop.

Collaboration and communication can be augmented rather than replicated – use in-camera vision to overlay information, mix reality and allow the user to live their lives…better… (yes, that does sound quite marketing speak, doesn’t it?)

You know, I haven’t even gotten into the nature of wearables, and how the Internet of Things concept fits into the above argument of augmentation.

Next time.

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