The Google I/O 2017 Keynote revealed a number of updates related to Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR & VR). After watching the keynote, I began to think about how these hardware improvements, software upgrades, and new user interactions would have an impact on the current perception of this technology. It helped solidify my belief that AR & VR are more than a fad or limited to the video game industry. This article offers several examples, most of which do not require a VR headset. In addition, I'll look at ways that 360-degree experiences can be shared with an audience. These changes further solidify the technical foundation that AR & VR will continue to grow from, enhancing day-to-day lives and gaining a larger audience.
Plenty of room for improvement
Being an owner of many VR headsets (including but not limited to multiple Google Cardboards, View-Master VR Glasses, Samsung Gear VR, and the HTC Vive), I can honestly tell you I’ve probably spent more time collecting these devices than I have using them. If you exclude the failed attempts from Nintendo and Sega, this is a “new” first generation of consumer devices hitting the market.
Some technical improvements would benefit this current generation of VR devices. Field of view (FOV) is currently limited to 110 degrees. Increasing FOV to at least 180 or maybe even 220 degrees will drastically improve user experience. Weight and form-factor also need to be drastically reduced. Current devices are bulky, and because of this, fatigue and discomfort limit how long people are willing to stay engaged. Six degrees of freedom (6DOF) where your full body is tracked in a 3D space is required for true immersion. Doing all of this without being tethered to a computer will be critical to success.
Google, through a partnership with HTC Vive and Lenovo, has just announced WorldSense, a technology which provides 6DOF that will be used in standalone Daydream headsets to be released later this year.
Engaging a Larger Audience
Given sufficient time, the current limitations will disappear. But, what do we do in the meantime? Both Facebook and Google have taken the same technology that powers 360 photos and videos in headsets, and they have embedded them into webpages and apps such as Facebook streams and Youtube video players. Users can now engage with 360-degree content without headsets. This introduction to 360-degree multimedia may be enough to peak a user's desire to experience similar content with a VR headset.
Similarly, enhancing our view of the world around us using augmented reality will tear down barriers to broader adoption. AR has been available for some years thanks to the introduction of smart phones with GPS, hi-resolution cameras, and relatively powerful processors. Apps like Ingress, created by Google and later spun off into its own company Niantic, allows users to explore and interact with popular landmarks. This same technology was recently used to power a very popular game, which you may have heard of, called Pokémon Go.
As I mentioned earlier, even though I own many VR headsets I don’t actually spend a lot of time in VR. That doesn’t mean my exposure to great VR experiences has been limited. In fact it’s just the opposite. I’ve lost count of how many games, videos, and other demos I’ve downloaded and enjoyed. The issue here is that I’ve yet to come across many experiences which draw me back over and over again or have seamlessly enhanced my daily routine. This is why I feel most people look at this technology as a novelty and not the next major platform. I believe this idea comes from how quickly we as a culture adopt or discard new technologies. Smartphones seemed to be an overnight success, while 3D movies and TVs were a fad. However, if you look back to the original iPhone which launched July 2007, it wasn’t until 5 years later in 2012 that smartphones became the mobile device of choice. Virtual and augmented reality is a solid platform with lots of potential; we are in the process of figuring out what that is and how it improves the way we consume data and interact with world around us.
Sharing Experiences with Others
One of the most enjoyable things I experience with VR is introducing people to this technology. It brings me joy to witness people’s first reaction to being in VR. Words and phrases I hear time and time again, like “OMG, this is amazing.” and “Wow! Now I get it.” reassure me that this is not just a fad. Virtual reality is here to stay and augmented reality is right around the corner.
I’ve taken pride in my home VR setup; I have a large open area in my attic, so it’s easy to get immersed in environments without hitting the boundaries of the play area which causes a safety grid to appear on the screen. This chaperone system is meant to save you from running into real-world objects like furniture and walls but can disrupt the suspension of disbelief. The other nice feature I have is a projector and a large screen which allows others in the room to see what the person with the headset is seeing. This has been ideal for creating shared experiences and even replicating games like Pictionary using 3D art applications like Google’s Tilt Brush.
Being able to share the experience with others adds value to virtual reality. Google Earth VR is a great example. I’ve really enjoyed watching friends navigate the planet, showing me places that are special to them, like a childhood home or a beach where they proposed to their significant other. Hearing their stories and being able to visualize where it happened really adds to the experience.
I believe Google understands this. They announced three major initiatives that make it easier to experience virtual and augmented reality with an audience. 360 in the Living Room takes the 360-degree videos and photos which are on your computer or mobile devices and now lets you view them on your TV via Chromecast. Daydream to Chromecast allows people to see exactly what the person wearing the Daydream VR headset sees on a display. It does so using Chromecast. This is similar to what I have done in my attic but hardware cost and setup complexity are significantly reduced.
Education is a Key to Success
Google Expeditions is the last major initiative I’ll mention, but to me it’s the most important. Google Expeditions is a platform geared towards education. It’s bringing all this technology into the classroom to enrich the learning experience. It also levels the playing field for educational opportunity as well by providing a better appreciation or understanding for cultures around the world. No longer are children missing out on what it’s like visit the National Museum of History in Washington D.C., take in the Pyramids in Egypt, stand next to an active volcano, or explore the depths of the ocean because of where they live, how much it costs, or how dangerous it is to go there. They can experience empathy towards refugees or learn about other cultures by putting them into the shoes of others without leaving the classroom.
Virtual reality, augmented reality, or mixed reality (whatever you want to call it) is here to stay and will continue to grow in the educational space. Much like radio for our grand-parents, TV for our parents, and computers for us, our children will grow up with these technologies and use them on a day-to-day basis. The platform will be fundamental to how they understand the world around us. Therefore, they will likely be the ones who come up with more exciting and seamless ways for this technology to improve our lives.
There are many people out there who doubt the purpose or impact of virtual and augmented reality and that’s okay. I feel we are at the beginning of a revolutionary change in how we consume content and interact with the world around us. If what we have now is an early iteration of this platform then I’ll admit I’m blown away by the quality of hardware and how people are using it to build meaningful and enjoyable experiences. The foundation is there. It may just be the futurist in me but I’m already sold on this technology. I don’t believe there’s any way to stop it from reaching a tipping point to mainstream adoption.