We have virtual reality. What’s next is straight out of ‘The Matrix’

[I’ve removed the more familiar review of VR’s past and present from this long story from Digital Trends (which features videos and more images) to focus on the part that forecasts the far and near future of VR and presence. –Matthew]

We have virtual reality. What’s next is straight out of ‘The Matrix’

By Nick Mokey — December 19, 2016

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A kid born in 1999 is just now old enough to rent the R-rated Matrix — or more likely, stream it. Yet in those intervening 17 years, entering the Matrix has gone from a dystopian sci-fi dream to a waking reality. These days, a pair of $800 goggles can convince you to duck as dinosaurs shamble over you, drop the pit of your stomach as you peer off the ledge of an artificial skyscraper, and make you puke — in real life — after one too many loops in a computer-generated space fighter.

And yup, you can freeze time and stop bullets, too.

As a society, we are glimpsing into the Matrix, and we like it. How did we get here, and what’s next? Here’s where VR came from, how it finally delivered after decades of failed promises, and how it’s going to utterly reshape our world in the next 10 years.

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ENTER THE MATRIX

So when do we get the good stuff? When will virtual reality be indistinguishable from reality?

“Probably 30 years,” Bushnell suggested, unfazed. “We’re in the Pong stage of virtual reality. Basically, we hit photorealism in games almost 10 years ago. So in 35 years, we went from blocky quarter-inch pixels of Pong, to photorealism. It’s only reasonable to assume that we can do the same thing with virtual reality.”

That’s when real life goes full sci-fi.

“Once you get this stuff built, anybody can live the life of a rich person with just N number of calories a day to keep your body working,” Bushnell posited. “Then all that we have to do is worry about boredom. Do we now start fighting wars in virtuality? Is somebody going to sneak up on us when we’re all plugged in?”

The question of whether to take the red pill or blue pill, in other words, may be one you’ll have to answer in this lifetime. “Why would you not be in virtual reality?” Modal VR cofounder Jason Crawford asks. “You can have whatever reality you want.”

The societal implications could fill volumes. Who stays behind to run the simulation? How is it powered? Is a life lived in virtual reality as meaningful as one lived in reality? How do we get out? How do we know we’re not in it right now?

Bushnell and Crawford imagine some sort of test for that last one — like Cobb’s iconic spinning top in Inception. “Maybe that test is unhappiness,” Crawford suggests. Having a bad day means you’re in reality … because who would opt for a bad day in a universe of their own creation?

We might need that test sooner than you think — like now. “Elon Musk was chuckled at at [the Recode conference], and slightly ridiculed in some press, for saying there’s a one in billions chance that we’re not in a simulation,” Crawford says. “Nolan and I back Elon 100 percent. There’s a logical path to lead you to believe that argument.”

REACH OUT AND TOUCH SOMEONE

Before we get there, engineers have a lot of hard work to do.

Today’s headsets deliver a convincing visual display, but all it takes is lifting a weightless sword or walking through a wall to shatter the illusion. We still need the rest of our senses. And emulating the human sense of touch through haptic technology might be the hardest technology to master.

“I think we can simulate taste and smell pretty well,” Bushnell said. “But texture? In my mouth? The subtle changes as the enzymes break down the sugars into different things? Boy it’s going to be hard.”

Crawford believes we’ll need to communicate with nerve receptors directly to make it work, rather than fabricating mechanical imitations. “An inflatable bladder, and buzzes, and zaps, and pressure, and things like that … it’s too crude to trick our nerve endings.”

In other words, we need to talk to our nerves directly. But that means speaking their language, which scientists don’t entirely understand how to do yet. We know enough about the eyes to fake a vibrant yellow banana hanging from a tree in front of you, and enough about the nose to perfectly mimic its scent, but not yet enough to fool the hands into feeling its soft, rubbery texture. When we get there, not even the sky’s the limit. Nature goes out the window.

Just look at gum. “You can get a pack of gum at the store that is completely believable in some instances, and then you have these other flavors that are just crazy, flavors you never thought of!” Crawford said. “It’s going to be the same with all the other senses. Once you mimic them, then you can start to play with them and create things that people have never even thought of before.”

So future VR could not only allow us to feel the slick surface of ceramic or the soft fur of a cat, but totally synthetic touch sensations that don’t even exist in reality — like Juicy Fruit … for your hands.

THE NEXT 10 YEARS OF VR

Before we go full Matrix, most of us would probably settle for a headset that doesn’t have to be strapped to your face, and tethered by a thick bundle of wires. We’re headed in that direction fast.

“The headsets are going to be getting lighter,” HTC’s O’Brien assured us. “They’re going to be getting more comfortable. The audio is going to get better, the visual displays are going to get better. We will make those screens even brighter. We will make the resolution better.”

Oh, and that unwieldy bundle of cords that spills out the back? It’s going away thanks to a clever technology you might not expect: eye tracking. By detecting what your eye is focused on, engineers could turn down the detail and refresh rates at the periphery of your vision, requiring less data to deliver the same visual quality. “We can actually start to improve throughput,” O’Brien explains. “So now we have less dependency on throughput and that cable.” Snip.

And the clunky black laser boxes that track you? “Let’s just make the tracking available in your house, instead of having a specific room and boxes,” O’Brien went on. “Let’s put the tracking in lightbulbs, or in the ceiling or something, and make it even easier.”

Advances in computing power will push graphics even further. “I believe that there will be, in 10 years, instances where visuals are passing convincibility and are on the path to indiscernibility,” ModalVR’s Crawford said.

And if you can’t personally afford VR yet, Bushnell would be happy for you to try one on somewhere else. “I believe that we’re going to see an explosion of mall VR arcades, or warehouses taken over for ‘the new paintball’ or ‘the new laser tag,’” Bushnell claimed. ModalVR will sell portable VR kits that can essentially transform any space into a VR space.

Google just wants to get everyone on board. “We’re really excited about simplifying the technology, simplifying the usability, making it understandable for anyone, so that they can understand why it would fit their life,” said Nartker, who helped launched the affordable Daydream View. He sees the Nintendo Wii as an inspiration. “I don’t think VR has had that type of moment yet, where it has gone from the enthusiast to the more mass-market audience.”

Content, Sidhu assured us, will also get better: “A lot of the live-action experiences that you see right now are passive: You’re like a ballerina in a music box. You can see the experience happening around you. In the future, we want to reach out and be part of that, and step out of the frame.” With the right cameras, rigs, and the processing power to stitch all the data together, she believes it’s already possible — we just need to connect the dots.

Of course, VR can get smarter, too. “I’ve recently been talking to IBM Watson about the way VR and AR will merge: A VR powered by artificial intelligence, experiences that are tailored to you, that know what you need, and are able to respond in real time,” Sidhu said. “That’s when it becomes exceptionally exciting. How this new medium can help us live our lives better. How it can help us become better humans.”

WILL VR HELP SHAPE A BETTER SOCIETY?

Can the ability to synthesize new realities, as Sidhu hopes, really help us become better humans, rather than just better-informed or better-entertained humans? Can it help shape a better society?

“Any technical power for the good can be perverted into something for the bad, whether we’re talking about nuclear power, whether we’re talking about telephones, whether we’re talking about social media,” Bushnell conceded. “I think that we have to be sensitive to the dark side, because there could be some really ugly things to it.”

But he also sees tremendous opportunities: Why not let criminals menace virtual worlds, rather than the real thing? And wouldn’t the unlimited abundance of a virtual world allow everyone to live as only the rich do now?

Of course, the overwhelming allure of virtual worlds could also be their fatal attraction. Do we really want everyone plugged in? “We already have a lot of people watching their TV sets, and playing video games, and looking at cute cat videos online,” Rheingold said. “I think that’s a legitimate fear, that people are going to be spending less time interacting with each other face to face, and more time interacting with each other virtually.”

For a man who confessed to us that a team member once slept while wearing the HTC Vive just to see how it felt to wake up in that realm, O’Brien admitted he doesn’t want this future, either. “I hope that there’s still human interaction, and we don’t go full Matrix,” he said. “That would be bad.” O’Brien hopes his son will grow up in a world where people still primarily interact face to face, even if they have the benefit of occasionally doing so virtually — or flying to the moon on an Apollo mission. “I constantly tell my son, “Hey! No more VR. Go out and play.’”

Even [Jaron] Lanier, the optimistic godfather of VR, had his skepticism. “I often worry about whether it’s a good technology or a bad technology,” Lanier confessed to Whole Earth Review all those years ago. “I’m sure bad things will happen with virtual reality; there will be some pain that it plays a part in because it will be a big thing and the world can be cruel. But I think overall it will actually have a tendency to enhance people’s sensitivity towards nature, towards preserving the Earth, because they’ll have a point of comparison.”

Taking vacations in virtual reality, in other words, might just be the breather that makes us better appreciate the splendor of the real thing.

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