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Five questions about VR beyond gaming with three people making it happen

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Looking at Facebook, Sony and Samsung, you might think the future of virtual reality is all entertainment and social interaction. While video games and movie watching are both primary components of the recent virtual reality wave, there's much more to the field. Matterport, a company focused on 3D-mapping tech, and BeAnotherLab, the group behind interactive art installation "The Machine to be Another" -- are each pushing forward virtual reality, and neither are focused directly on game-like interactive immersion. The medium of virtual reality is young, but it is already varied. So, what does the future hold? We asked five questions surrounding that subject to three people who are shaping that future: the panelists for our "Back to Reality: VR Beyond Gaming" panel at Expand 2014 (which starts tomorrow!). Head below for their answers!

Where is virtual reality today?

BeAnotherLab's Marte Roel: It's a very exciting time; while research and development in VR has been ongoing since the initial boom of the '80s and '90s, it has not been focused on consumer markets since that time. What has breathed new life into the field of VR, and caused a renewal of public interest, is the radical shift in the ecosystem of technological development. Previously, the tools and knowledge were the sole domain of large corporations and research institutions, but now you have a lot of very creative individuals and groups working outside of this system; with alternative funding like crowdfunding, rapid prototyping tools, easier access to cheap manufacturing and open knowledge contributing to accelerated development and adoption of technologies.

This tension between large corporations and the maker ecosystem has injected a tremendous amount of energy into the field, which has, as of yet, not coalesced into a mass market. We see a lot of the same VR concepts that existed more than 20 years ago, but this technology does not exist without context; instead it works to co-create context. As such, we face an important question: Do we want to continue building over what is provided by our current socioeconomic and techno-cultural context? We see the high-energy and fluid state of VR as an opportunity to work toward creating a more human-centered context, which addresses some of the shortcomings of the previous VR boom and information technology in general.

Matterport Co-founder/Chief Strategy Officer Matt Bell: It's where the web was in 1994 or social media in 2003. People agree that it's going to change the world, but they're working out how and when the various markets and use cases are going to go big.

Linden Labs CEO Ebbe Altberg: It depends on what you mean by "virtual reality" -- I'd argue that term means something beyond just the head-mounted displays and other hardware that are often associated with it. An important aspect of virtual reality is the level of immersion and impact it can have on a person. Part of what qualifies an experience as virtual reality is that it impacts you in the same way as if it had really happened in the physical world -- your brain fails to distinguish the difference between the virtual and the real.

Virtual reality is still in its infancy, still niche, but we're nearing a massive inflection point. Not only is the hardware, software, networking, etc. all improving, but people are also increasingly comfortable with digital experiences, from communicating to shopping, playing, learning, creating and more. The combination of technical and cultural advancements [is] leading us toward a point where a huge number of people will be able to experience virtual realities.

What is the greatest challenge that the medium of virtual reality must overcome in the next five years?

Roel: There are three different domains in which we may find fundamental challenges: social, research and design. In terms of the social aspect, which is perhaps the most important, we have to talk about what will fit within the bounds of our current context; there are many technologies that may affect our conception of what constitutes a "virtual experience" -- from transcranial magnetic stimulation to psychoactive drugs -- but these are not commonly bound within our current social context. On the other hand, there are many virtual experiences, or virtual tools that are used and becoming much more accepted. Look at Tinder for example; 10 years ago, it was not as accepted to go on dates using online tools as mediators for real experiences. Whatever future applications become widespread in the near future, they will emerge from their bounding to our current context and there is where energy and creativity must be applied.

As far as recent and near-future research is concerned, we believe that research in multimodal perception is fundamental for our understanding of how to build robust virtual experiences, and perhaps even novel perceptual experiences. Under the conception of perception as a sensorimotor faculty, if we are able to manipulate sensorimotor contingencies, we might be able to construct new forms of perception.

Lastly, the central challenge of design is how to integrate all this in a user-friendly, perhaps portable, and inexpensive product that at the same time is meaningful in a variety of different social and cultural contexts.

Bell: Making VR mainstream will require getting people to adopt a technology that's very fundamental to how they look and how they act in public. This is often difficult; Bluetooth headsets have been successfully accepted into the mainstream, but Google Glass has not. The rest of the 3D ecosystem needs to mature. For example, 3D input devices are needed to make the UI work well, since you can't easily use a mouse and keyboard in VR. Fortunately there are options under development, such as Sixense, Leap Motion and Nimble Sense.

Altberg: Ease of use remains the greatest challenge. In order to truly reach the mainstream, virtual reality experiences will have to be easy, natural and comfortable to create, interact with and consume.

What is your vision for the future of VR?

Roel: Our vision of the future is perhaps similar to others on the panel; i.e., pervasive across different industries, accessible to everyone, integrated into [the] fabric of social interaction, collective virtual spaces and experiences becoming as culturally meaningful as real reality, etc. But for us, this cultural and technological shift toward the virtual, in which social interaction is happening more and more at distance and its cohesion is mediated through centralized information systems, is not something we see as inevitably utopian or even optimal. In simple terms, it doesn't matter how you look at it; you still have your face in a box, and we are concerned about what that means for human culture. As a result, our approach is somewhat in reaction to this anticipated future, where we attempt to address broad social issues and interaction paradigms in a critical manner and co-opt existing technologies to shift the focus back toward the human.

Bell: This is such a broad category that it's hard to answer. (e.g., "What is the future of the internet?") I expect broad interest, not just gamers. We're showing Matterport's VR models of houses to people in real estate, traditionally a very tech-phobic industry, but they're very interested in it. There's something fundamentally valuable when you put on a VR headset and it gives you a sense of place.

Altberg: As things advance, VR experiences will get much richer, more interactive and more natural -- they'll get closer and closer to "reality" with both the interfaces and the emotional impact of the experiences.

One key for the future of VR is that it won't be just a consumer experience. Today, many VR experiences are more like 3D movies, or games, but directed and passive experiences are only part of what VR will be. In the future, one way VR will move closer to reality is in the types of experiences one can have that go beyond being a consumer -- you'll be able to create things, connect and interact with other people, share and trade, work, learn and more.

What is VR's "killer app"? Gaming? Media consumption? Virtual travel? Something else?

Roel: Framing the potential of VR as necessitating a "killer app" holds back the industry, which already suffers from being narrowly concerned with monetizing applications and marketing them within established structures. What we have before us is a much broader cultural shift in how humans interact with and through virtual, remote and informational spaces due primarily to the affordances of new interfaces, which are becoming multimodal and immersive. We are, of course, at the beginning of this shift, and have been since the '80s in terms of VR, but one of the key aspects is that this is a complex process of co-evolution of technology and our own human perception of reality. The "killer app" for VR will be something a lot more dynamic that is bound by our cultural conception of reality and capable of having a wide impact on the behavior of humanity, not a single-use-case scenario.

Bell: There's a wide range of apps that I believe will be successful, but I expect social virtual worlds, in all their flavors, to be a significant fraction of this. This will include real places, digitally constructed places and everything in between. There's a lot of potential for social gatherings in these virtual worlds for whatever purpose, whether it's a game, a business meeting, shopping, a training session or casual social interaction. Social media brought increased interactivity and personal relevance at a cost of media richness and immersion, but VR will let the immersion side catch up.

Altberg: This is a tough question -- it's a bit like asking, "What's the killer app for the internet?" I'd say the killer app for the internet is communication, and the key for VR is creating a context within which to communicate that makes the experience like a real one.

With virtual worlds, the experience can be as impactful as real life, but the context for those experiences can far surpass real life. You have complete control over the virtual world -- you have the freedom to be whoever you want (including someone else), and create anything you can imagine, with other people -- and so the experiences you can have in VR can go beyond the bounds of reality. In the future, we will create, play, work, travel, learn, teach, heal, socialize and find love in VR experiences.

What is your company or project doing to make VR a consumer product?

Roel: The ambition driving our project is to develop technologies which facilitate empathy and social good. While other companies are focusing on existing industry-wide technological or market challenges, we are taking a leap in developing and designing for future applications which we believe will become pervasive.

We do this through a distributed research and development network where we can explore niche applications in various fields through partnerships with key players, such as MIT and [the] United Nations, while simultaneously interconnecting these developments with the broader open-source community. Concretely, we work developing tools for conflict resolution, human-centered design, interactive art and storytelling experiences as well as scientific research in cognitive science, embodiment, pain perception, phobias, body dysmorphia and neurorehabiliation.

Central to our methodology is developing technology through a process of co-creation. We are passionate about working in collaboration with members of the public in many different cultural contexts and testing these prototypes "in the field." We believe this contributes to a much richer and deeper understanding of the user experience of the people who will ultimately benefit from these technologies.

Bell: Matterport makes it easy to bring real-world spaces into VR. 3D content is very difficult to create from scratch, but we've used our computer-vision expertise to build the 3D equivalent of the camera. With Matterport, the public can use the Oculus Rift and Gear VR to explore real-world sites. This could be for tourism (e.g., museums, historical sites, famous places), virtual shopping, looking at places to rent or buy, etc. It also lets you view transformations to real-world spaces, such as remodels or furniture purchases.

Altberg: Linden Lab is currently building a next-generation platform that will allow people to create their own virtual experiences that will be accessible with VR hardware, as well as via other devices. It will be in the spirit of Second Life and will empower people to create their own places and easily invite others into them for shared virtual experiences. This ambitious project will make it so that not only can anyone easily enjoy immersive virtual experiences, [but] they can also create their own.

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