Living the dream


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Reality is so 20th century.

It was during the 1980s when its replacement began to emerge. With pricey computers and clunky graphics, the primitive technology of “virtual reality” projected graphic representations onto computer screens, showing scenes that would move or turn with you, creating the illusion that you’re physically in the middle of a parallel reality.

Architects now could “walk” clients through designs of buildings and move walls or windows before a shovel broke ground. Boeing’s engineers built the company’s 777 airplane in virtual space and found that some crannies needed to be widened so mechanics would have enough room to maneuver to reach parts needing repair — possibly saving months, and millions of dollars, in rebuilding a prototype.

But virtual reality, or VR, is no longer just a suburb of Geekville. A January 2016 Goldman Sachs market study pegged the newly blossoming VR market at between $80 billion and $182 billion by 2025, against less than $10 billion this year. Venture capitalists invested an estimated $3.5 billion in virtual-reality concepts in 2014 and 2015; Magic Leap’s “cinematic reality” device alone drew $793 million in new financing last February, thought to be the largest such round in history. 

Those funders had a large menu to choose from. Oculus and HTC have debuted state-of-the-art systems that retail for an enticing $599 and $799, respectively. Optinvent’s ORA-X hangs a tiny, transparent computer screen in front of your eye from high-end headphones. MetaVision’s Meta 2 system lets you see holograms laid over your real-world surroundings. Visbox makes the CAVE, a bathroom-size cubicle that projects realistic scenes onto the walls, ceiling and floor. Developers are combining CAVE-like environments with omnidirectional treadmills so users can ramble anywhere in their virtual worlds.

BIGGIES HAVE VR VISIONS

Even the giants have signed on. Microsoft has its HoloLens, another hologram device, and Sony is rolling one out too. Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR both are, in essence, holders for smartphones that run VR apps while you hold the gadgets up to your eyes like a pair of binoculars. Apple is said to have hundreds of engineers creating a signature VR device — and, in seven of its stores in Sweden, McDonald’s is selling Happy Goggles, through which customers can watch a VR game featuring the Swedish national ski team.

Why now? First, computer technology has continued its relentless evolution to smaller, faster, more powerful chips, more capacious memory, and more realistic graphics while prices per unit of capacity steadily fall. 

Second, people expect it. A generation of adults has grown up with the intense, immersive, interactive experiences of Grand Theft Auto and similar video games. Turning to a screen and entering an alternative reality instantly engages this generation with an even stronger grip than the novelty of television grabbed their grandparents. Merchants who lure customers into alternate worlds will gain sales and market share from those who can’t.

Creators have taken two paths into virtual worlds. Augmented reality, or AR, projects words or images onto a transparent lens hanging in your field of vision that lets you continue to see the real world at the same time (think Google Glass). Warehouse workers can pop on a set of AR-enhanced glasses and instantly have a map of the most efficient route among the items they need to retrieve, saving time and boosting efficiency. A mechanic could look at a factory machine through AR glasses and step-by-step repair instructions would be projected onto the lens, eliminating the need to stop and read a greasy manual. With a different app, the mechanic’s 4-year-old could use the same glasses to watch pixies flying across her bedroom.

NATURAL WORLD? NAH!

In contrast, VR shuts out all views of the physical world by confining your vision inside a wraparound headset. As you raise or lower your head, or turn it side to side, the view shifts just as it would normally; as you walk forward, you come closer to virtual objects. You feel yourself to physically be in a different place.  Some systems coordinate images with sound and even movement; for example, if a bomb went off in your virtual space, you might not only hear the noise but the chair you’re sitting in might jolt. Wearing “data gloves” can let you pick up and move virtual objects in these fantasy worlds. Think of VR as living inside a video game.

But, for a growing number of industries, VR isn’t a game but their future.

Yihaodian, a Chinese grocery company, is opening a chain of e-markets in places such as parks and bus stations. Passers-by will see empty walls; those wearing VR goggles will see shelves stocked with goods. Shoppers will buy items by scanning their VR images with their smartphones and their completed orders will be delivered to their homes.

Several smartphone apps, such as iOnRoad and BMW’s iDrive, capture a driver’s view of the road ahead and superimpose traffic data or driving directions on the smartphone screen. Mental health workers are using VR as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder; with the patient immersed in an intense, simulated environment like that which caused the trauma, therapies can be more deeply effective than conventional talk therapy. 

The applications in entertainment are as obvious as they are numerous: more immersive video games and movies in 360-degree sound and vision are only a few. One game lets you see what it’s like to play ping-pong in zero gravity; others let you join a sports team and defend a hockey net or come up to bat with the bases loaded. By last September, Oculus already had registered 200,000 developers eager to create games for its VR headset.

Travel agents will offer virtual “pre-tours” of hotels, cruise-ship staterooms, restaurants, and sites and attractions so travelers can better choose their itineraries. Travelers wearing their smart AR glasses will look at a sign in a foreign language and see an instant translation on their screens. For would-be travelers of modest means, tour guides could offer virtual tours of exotic locales, complete with sounds and smells.

STAR TREK AT A LOWE’S NEAR YOU

Lowe’s, the home-improvement-store chain, had debuted “holorooms” in 19 US stores by April with more coming. After designing a new kitchen or bath, homeowners are escorted to a kiosk where they can pull on a VR headset and stand inside their concept. A store salesperson standing by with a tablet can change wall colors, cabinet styles or locations, or swap positions between the refrigerator and range. Sotheby’s is starting to offer tours of luxury homes via VR. Clothing retailers can capture a video image of a customer and then let the customer virtually try on items, changing the color or accompanying accessories with a few flicks of a finger across a tablet screen. 

The Goldman Sachs study notes that VR’s ability to save time and disappointment will earn it a $500 million annual market a
mong retailers by 2020 and $1.6 billion by 2030. 

Business and professional applications are equally vast. Medical developer Fraunhofer MEVIS’ “Liver Explorer” puts a transparent pane between a surgeon and a patient’s organ. The app videos the liver as surgeons expose and enter it and superimposes the surgical plan onto the organ. The software also continuously updates the plan as blood vessels shift position or the organ is resectioned. Investment managers can avail themselves of an app that displays a stock portfolio as a virtual city, with each stock as a skyscraper that gains or loses stories as its price changes. A manager can quickly spot stocks underperforming others and decide whether to dump it.

Training aircraft and watercraft pilots in simulators has been a military standard since the 1980s, saving billions in fuel and wear and tear on gear; the new generation of VR technology will make those training systems more realistic. Defense contractor Raytheon is among several that have expanded the use, creating a VR-based training simulation for its Patriot mobile-missile system. Moving and assembling the system involves trucks, cranes and a variety of other tools large and small, as well as closely integrated hand signals, voice commands and teamwork. These skills have to be practiced regularly and in minute detail or they’ll be rusty when the chips are down. Virtual training regimes keep teams sharp at a fraction of the time and cost of conventional training.

Crucially, VR will enable recruits to endure the realities of combat without leaving the barracks. That’s key; the din and chaos of real war can disorient and overwhelm soldiers unprepared for it, whether on a ship or battlefield. Conditioning through VR can improve troops’ ability to perform under the gun.  The same training systems can be used for police and sheriff’s officers as well.

Perhaps one of the largest markets for VR is social media — the reason that Facebook laid down $2 billion to buy Oculus in 2014. Starship Group in Liverpool, England, has created vTime, the first VR social network, in which your avatar can hang out with others in locations ranging from a campfire in the woods to outer space. Altspace VR’s system makes it possible for folks — through their avatars — to watch movies together, have a business meeting or just hang out. The company is working to incorporate hand gestures and facial affect into the experience.

STILL HUMAN RESTRAINTS

But even the best devices can’t remove us from the limitations of being human. A classic study from 21 years ago found that people playing violent, deeply engaging video games not only showed increases in heart rate but also in aggressive thoughts. There’s also the persistent problem of cybersickness; people who play immersive, high-motion video games, especially in VR, are prone to dizziness, nausea, discoordination and disorientation — a syndrome akin to seasickness. (On leaving a VR experience, one woman went to sip a soda and poured it into her eye instead of her mouth.)

But other difficulties may not be so short-lived. Since the days of black-and-white television, video has been shown to be addictive, and highly immersive video games especially so. The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders now lists “Internet gaming disorder” — defined as addiction, with symptoms similar to cocaine dependency — as a legitimate illness needing treatment. 

Mayank Mehta, a neuropsychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, led a team that studied the behavior of individual neurons in rats’ brains when the rats were placed in a VR environment. The researchers found that, in the portion of the rats’ brains that maps the rats’ location in space, 60 percent of the neurons shut down entirely and the remaining 40 percent were firing randomly, not in patterns. Because this portion of the human brain also is linked to neurological conditions such as epilepsy and Alzheimer’s, as well as depression and PTSD, scientists warn against spending too much time in alternate realities for fear that the assault on normal brain function might discombobulate, or perhaps even impair, the brain’s ability to return to reality.

But perhaps reality is relative. Ten years from now, when VR technologies are vastly more realistic than today, millions of us may spend part of our workdays in enhanced realities and come home to while away our leisure hours in virtual worlds. Will we decide that we like living artificially more than we like the real world, where we still have to do laundry and see the dentist? 

Could we lose our sense of physical danger if VR lets us scramble up sheer rock faces and toss villains down the stairs? Might we come to prefer virtual sex, virtual friends and virtual experiences that let us screen out the unpleasant? If you have virtual sex with someone’s avatar, are you unfaithful to your spouse? Might we even redefine reality to encompass anything that our brains, minds and bodies tell us is real?

Our answers will define not only reality, but also quite possibly what it means to be human.    TJ  

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