By Connor Couture
In this fast-paced world of ours, technology is advancing forward at breakneck pace. Just a mere 10 years ago, smartphones were virtually nonexistent, and just another 10 years before that, the internet barely existed. Many, especially the technologically inclined, are greatly interested in what next move in the tech world will change much of the world yet again. In this time and age, the latest tech trend is virtual reality and augmented reality, and while the technology is still in its infancy, it could very well be the next thing that changes our world, yet again.
What is virtual reality, or augmented reality, one may ask? They are actually both quite different, and both have quite a large amount of possibility. Virtual reality is basically something that will make you feel like you are in a totally separate world. When you look around, you will move around normally much like the real world, however you would be essentially in a virtual world. On the flip side, augmented reality doesn’t place you in a virtual world. Instead, it augments your everyday life. This allows essentially virtual content to be superimposed on the real world. Virtual reality as of now essentially uses a headset that has small displays on the end. Some more simplistic virtual reality experiences use a smartphone instead of built-in displays. The headset goes over your eyes and basically blocks out the real world.
Augmented reality is being developed in a few different ways. One is basically a pair of glasses with a small display that allows some basic information to be seen by one’s eyes. Another is a more advanced headset that allows the image to be projected to a larger field of a view. Both VR and AR are still quite in their infancy and have so much room to improve.
One large problem with VR is just the sheer amount of computer power needed to digitally render a very high resolution world at a frame rate that won’t give one motion sickness. As of now, more immersive VR experiences are largely limited to high-end gaming desktops that have powerful graphic cards that can run the experience at a high frame rate. Because of this, pretty much all of the more premium VR experiences are essentially “tethered” experiences. Basically you have a bunch of wires running from the VR headset straight into the PC, this way the PC can render the entire experience. The big problem with this is that this takes you out of totally feeling like you’re dropped in another world. One’s body will always be subconsciously watchful about the wires in the real world so a person will never feel fully immersed in the virtual world. Certain manufactures are making computers that can fit on backpacks, this way the person can essentially carry around the computer that is powering the VR experience. This is an interesting solution to the problem; however, since it is a mobile computer, the user is bound by low battery life due to the high power draw of the high end computer. This brings us back to the initial problem of how VR just needs a significant amount of computing power for it to run. However, we have Moore’s law on our side which, in essence, states that computing power doubles every few years. This allows efficiency to improve at breakneck pace. Just think how modern smartphones have hundreds of times more power than the best computers of the 90s. The “power” problem in VR might just be overcome in a few years’ time.
This brings us to another problem with VR as of now. Currently, VR headsets use rather crude controllers to interact with the virtual world. They are improving, however the best controllers right now are just plastic controllers with some motion sensors in them. Ideally, eventually, we want VR to mirror real world motion. For example, when you use your hands in the virtual world, they would act just as they would in the real world. And this might be very well possible in the quite near future; some startup companies are already working on VR gloves.
This brings us to the ultimate problem with VR—market viability. Believe it or not, VR actually has been tried before—multiple times in fact—and failed miserably every time. Even when it seems like so much positive innovation is occurring so quickly, it might be surprising but quite a lot of new tech fails as well. The possible use cases in VR are endless, and, like I said above, it has great potential to redefine the world yet again. Costly business meetings where people around the world have to fly to a certain location could be done completely virtually in a meeting room that feels much like an actual meeting room. Online schools, like this one, could be brought to the next level. Students could actually feel like they are in an actual classroom with a teacher, despite just wearing a VR headset at home. Travel could even be redefined, with people who can’t afford to travel experiencing a virtual travel experience to places that will feel almost like the real thing. However, as of now, most VR experiences are quite limited. They are largely limited to content consumption, and gaming. 360-degree experiences are becoming increasingly popular; however, they really lack a true virtual immersion. The big problem is essentially just technological struggles. Since only top-end technology can power the VR experience, only a few people will get it. And with the lack of people purchasing VR headsets, developers will likely feel increasingly disenchanted by trying to develop for a rather small market.
This is why, although VR seems quite cool, and appears to have quite a lot of potential, solid VR for the masses might be still a long time to come. This shouldn’t be discouraging to those who would like to see VR succeed, however. Many technologies took many years to take off. Computers have been around since the mid-20th century, however, models that were economically viable for most people didn’t come around until very late in the 20th century. Smartphones actually weren’t first invented by the Apple in 2007 with the introduction of the iPhone. Many devices like the Blackberry, and PalmPilots, actually were around for quite a while longer, they just took a while to take off. There are quite a few skeptics about VR in the tech world, however, I believe it just needs time. Time has shown its ability in advancing tech in the past, so I don’t see why it can’t now.