By: Todd Richmond, Ph.D., Director, Mixed Reality Lab/Studio, USC Institute for Creative Technologies/School for Cinematic Arts
Virtual Reality (VR) is all the rage right now. The hype cycles are expanding, technology evangelists are elevating it to sliced bread status, and investment money is pouring into startups as well as new efforts within established companies. But for someone who lived through the dot com bubble, and has been knee-deep in the goo of immersive developments for some time now, it certainly feels like we're going to party like its 1999 all over again.
If there is a VR bust in 2017, never fear – it won't go away. Just as the internet didn't fade into obscurity following the dot com collapse, VR (as well as Augmented Reality [AR]) will remain and eventually become part of our landscape. Immersive mediums (Virtual – Augmented - Mixed Reality (VAMR), are the third new communication and collaboration medium of the new millennium (internet and mobile being the other two). I do prefer to think in terms Mixed Reality (MxR) as both VR and AR are inherently mixed since a human is at the end of the piece of technology, and it can be deeply experiential. That fact is often lost on some developers however, as the relationship between a human and immersive content is complex and still not well understood. Far easier to focus on latency, resolution, and other quantifiable technical metrics and goals rather than "soft" factors such as empathy, efficacy, and ethics.
That said, VAMR and academia/education will have critical relationships in several directions going forward, particularly as consumers, creators, and experiential innovators. Educational institutions will clearly embrace VAMR as a technology capability, and thus create a market in the commercial sector for creating new content and experiences that augment and/or replace existing curriculum. For instance, Cardboard viewers are already being used in classrooms to provide "virtual field trips", and medical schools are looking at using AR and/or VR for physician training and education – everything from augmented displays for teaching basic anatomy to using virtual humans to train patient interview skills.
Unfortunately, tech in the classroom has often been pursued for the sake of "new" rather than based on pedagogical needs and desires. Part of the challenge is that new tech does require experimentation, both by those who create it, and then the organizations and teachers who will need to implement it. But all too often experiments get rebranded as solutions, and then fail to produce desired result, or more likely, are trying to solve a problem that doesn't necessarily exist for the educator. This was the case when mobile became a focus as the smartphone era began. For example, Powerpoints used for training were converted to pdf, then put into a smartphone, with the promise of "mobile education". This porting of old models to new mediums rarely works, and it is critical to not assume that early experimentation results in a vetted solution. Many challenges will accompany this move to VAMR, with the most fundamental being a complete rethink of what constitutes a classroom experience, and how virtual and physical can coexist in meaningful and effective ways.
Perhaps more importantly, academia must play a role in helping to figure out the "why" of VAMR. As business focuses on selling product and content, someone else needs to work on understanding the deeper meanings of what it means to be human in an increasingly virtual set of worlds, and explore possible unintended consequences. VAMR content and experiences are very much in the early stages of development (analogous to movies in the early 20th century), though we *expect* them to be better since film and games are so advanced, and we think that we can port the old content models to the new medium. But immersion is a different relationship with the user, and the new sense of agency that end users wield massively complicate content development (e.g. it breaks traditional linear narrative).
VAMR is driven by digital – all those 0s and 1s being generated, manipulated, transported, remixed, and consumed. Part of the challenge is that humans are not digital, but rather are profoundly "analog" – we are part of the physical world that is continuous and monitored by our highly evolved multiple senses that digital only roughly approximates. So, that relationship between the digits and the human is challenging to navigate and understand. Being able to make experiences meaningful rather than just "gee whiz" remains more art than science.
I view humans and digital as oil and vinegar – they don't mix and there are no solutions, but if you shake them up in the right combination, you can get a tasty salad dressing – which is an emulsion. The problem is if you stop shaking, eventually they separate. But just as a little egg yolk turns oil and vinegar into mayonnaise – a stable emulsion – there perhaps are ways to help bridge and bind the analog and digital to help create meaning. Emulsional Reality serves as an effective conceptual framework for VAMR development, and I spend my days looking for "egg yolks" – those tools/techniques/approaches that can form a stable emulsion between the human and the virtual. We think story can be one of these binders, and can help make for stable and meaningful human-digital experiences.
VAMR will touch and change every aspect of society one way or another. We need to figure how to leverage that power in ways that will help us thrive as humans. We should experiment tirelessly and move towards digital experiences that work for humans, as well as strive to understand why it is important. VR/AR will go from a novelty (as now) to a market (in the next few years) to a commodity capability (like chairs and tables). Getting to that point will take technical advances, content/context experimentation, and deep thinking about the morals, ethics, and deeper meanings that are presented by these immersive virtual worlds colliding with humans.
About the Author
By day, Todd Richmond is the Director of Advanced Prototypes at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT). By night he is a musician, visual artist, and conceptual trouble maker. Todd coined the terms "Emulsional Worlds" and "Emulsional Reality" to describe the challenges humans face in an increasingly virtual world and how analog and digital can coexist. Todd will provide insight on this topic at the annual SXSW Conference and Festival, 10-19 March, 2017. The session, AR/VR: The Promise and Danger Behind the Hype, is included in the IEEE Tech for Humanity Series at SXSW. For more information please see http://techforhumanity.ieee.org