2016 has been a banner year for consumer Virtual Reality technology. The Oculus Rift (arguably the first successful VR platform) was released earlier this year and the well-reviewed Oculus Touch controller arrived this month just in time for the holiday season. Microsoft, Playstation, Google, and other big names have also released VR products. While VR technology has largely captured the public imagination in the context of gaming, there are many innovative possibilities for its use and development in the near future.
What can innovative minds learn from the long history of efforts to develop effective virtual reality technology, and what new possibilities does it create?
The Long Wait for Virtual Reality
Humans have always sought entertainment and escape in the form of transportive visual experiences. The seeds of what would become virtual reality were planted in the early 1800s, when scientist Charles Wheatstone first demonstrated the brain’s capability to transform two-dimensional images from each eye into one unified three-dimensional image. This led to the invention of the stereoscope, which was popularized as the View-Master in 1939 (and still echoes today in products such as Google Cardboard).
It shouldn’t surprise regular readers to learn that VR as we know it was first posited by speculative fiction author Stanley G. Weinbaum, whose Pygmalion’s Spectacles introduced the idea of experiencing a fictional world through a pair of goggles with multi-sensory features. There have been many iterations of such a device over the past century, and the road to today’s virtual reality immersion technology took many detours along the way.
Virtual Reality as Simulator
One notable pursuit of virtual reality has been to create simulators for training experiences that are impossible or unsafe to pursue in “the real world.” Flight and combat simulators in particular have contributed to the technological development that enables the VR technology we see today.
The first commercial flight simulator was developed in 1929 by Edward Link and dubbed the “Link Trainer.” It’s estimated that over 10,000 of these electromechanical devices were used in the initial training and skill development of 500,000 pilots during World War II. Likewise, in 1961 engineers developed the Headsight – the first head mounted, motion-tracking device – to enable viewer controlled remote viewing of dangerous military situations.
In the 1990s the video game community began integrating existing technology in both virtual reality and haptics (tactile feedback technology) to create early VR games. Since then, demand for increasingly sophisticated gaming and entertainment experiences has been the driving force behind commercial VR.
Augmented Reality: Google Glass & SnapChat Spectacles
A recent article in FastCompany by futurist John Koetsier takes a look into the potential of virtual reality, positing that the transformative combination of VR with artificial intelligence and miniaturized technology will usher in a future of augmented reality. The failed trajectory of Google Glass serves as a cautionary tale for the industry, but several new products are poised to succeed where Google failed.
It may be that we aren’t quite ready to embrace a future in which technology becomes an extension of our bodies, or that the privacy concerns stirred by Google Glass prevented it from becoming an acceptable public presence. Regardless, augmented reality technology continues to be developed and refined with an eye to the mass market. SnapChat is creating significant buzz with its new Spectacles, having learned from Google’s mistakes and streamlined functionality at a lower price point. It also doesn’t hurt that their whimsical design suggests a toy rather than a cyborg.
Emerging Clinical Possibilities
While commercial VR is still primarily focused on gaming and entertainment, this emerging technology has exciting applications that reach far beyond simple escapism. In fact, this may prove to be Google Glass’s salvation. Augmented reality efforts focusing on medical applications have been in the news recently, including a recent $23M raise by Google Glass startup Augmedix, which seeks to pair doctors and nurses with remote scribes who handle note taking, charting, and documentation so that medical professionals have more time to spend with patients.
Another promising development in virtual reality comes from Australian company Liminal, which has created an immersive experience called Joy to alleviate loneliness and boredom in bed-bound hospital patients. While the product is in early testing, Liminal cites research indicating that lonely patients have longer recovery times and increased risk of disease. Mashable quotes neuroscientist Sami Yamin as saying “I think VR is going to have a massive impact on the medical profession… [from] assessment and early diagnosis, to rehabilitation and ongoing recovery and pain management.” Testing is also underway for multiple “exposure therapy” immersive experiences targeting PTSD, fear of public speaking, and even arachnophobia.
Creating the Future of Virtual & Augmented Reality
Innovators in the field of virtual reality are awakening to the possibilities of deploying this new technology to enhance the human experience in addition to providing escapism and entertainment. Perhaps one lesson from Google Glass is that the market is distrustful of VR experiences that give one individual an isolated experience in the public sphere. Could it be that the future of virtual reality is in helping us reach and serve each other better by facilitating human connection rather than replacing it?
The immense range of possibilities created by this emerging technology offer entrepreneurs and innovators a chance to reflect on important questions. With potential applications in medicine, education, communication, entertainment and other fields, how can we play a part in shaping a future that enriches the human experience?