Back in 1999 I was just finishing my Masters degree at Victoria University of Wellington. I needed a subject for my research paper and I chose what was then a hot topic, Virtual Reality (VR). At the time, the computing resources that were available to most people were, by today’s standards pretty limited.
17 years ago we measured RAM in megabytes, and disk space in gigabytes. The Internet was not as pervasive as it is today, and most people, if they accessed the Internet at all, used dial up modems. Broadband was for most people, still in their future. As were smartphones and all the technology that we immerse ourselves in today.
As could be imagined, this limited the effectiveness of VR. If you were trying to set up a VR session between two geographically separated places, then the VR experience could be somewhat limited by the low resolution, the speed of updates of the views that the users experienced, and the lags caused by the (relatively) slow connections.
Nevertheless, research was taking place, and Head Mounted Displays (HMDs) and VR gloves were researched and developed. The HMDs provided the user with displays of the virtual world around him/her, and the gloves provided the tactile element to some extent.
These devices have their current descendants of course, though more is heard of the HMDs than the gloves. The HMDs range from the highly developed devices like the Oculus Rift right down to cheap devices like Google Cardboard which literally that, a head mounted device consisting of a cardboard body and a cellphone. The cellphone’s screen is divided into two and different images are provided to each eye for the 3-Dimensional effect.
It was evident, back in 1999 when I wrote my paper that VR was a technology looking for an application, and it still is. Some TVs have been made which incorporate 3D technology, but the production of these appears to have tailed off almost completely. Apparently the added ability to experience movies in 3D which involved wearing special headsets, wasn’t enough to offset the necessity to wear the headsets.
People just used their imaginations when immersed in a program or movie and didn’t feel that they needed the extra dimension, and the headset added a barrier which prevented experience of shared movie watching that forms at least part of the entertainment value of watching movies with friends and families.
My paper was about diffusion of VR techniques into everyday life, and it mostly missed the point I think in retrospect (though the paper did help me get the degree!) My paper used a Delphi Technique for the research. This technique involves posing a series of question on the research topic to a number of specialists in the field. Their answers are then summarised and passed back to the whole panel. Any subsequent comments are then also summarised.
Obviously as workers in the field my panel was positive about VR’s then prospects, as you would expect. They however did sounds some notes of caution, which proved to be well founded. I’m not going to do a critique of my paper and the panel’s findings, but I will touch on them.
Specifically, they mentioned that my questions were all about fully immersive VR, which is basically what I’ve been talking about above, the HMD thing. Augmented VR, where our view of the world in not (fully) obstructed by the technology, but the technology enhances our view of the world is used much more in practise, and was when I wrote my paper too.
Augmented VR is things like Head Up Displays (HUDs) and Google Glass where information is added to the user’s field of view, providing him/her with extra information about the world around him/her is much more common. HUDs are common in planes and the like where the operator cannot spare the time to go and look up important information so the information is projected into his field of view. Google Glass was similar but allowed the user to feed back or request information, but unfortunately this did not really catch on and was dropped.
I mentioned in my questions to my panel that maybe the speed of the Internet was a barrier to the introduction of VR into everyday life. The panel were mostly sympathetic to this viewpoint, but in summary thought that fibre, which was on the horizon would significantly reduce this barrier to the everyday adoption of VR techniques. In fact people do not use the extra bandwidth for VR (except in a way that I will touch on in a minute), but for other things, like streaming TV shows and downloading music.
As I envisaged it, a typical VR setup would consist of someone in, say, London, with VR set interacting over the Internet with someone in, say, Tokyo who also has a VR set. They could shake each other’s hand, and view and discuss three dimensional objects in real time, regardless of whether the object was in London or Tokyo. Although I had not considered it at the time, a 3D printer could duplicate a 3D object in the other location, if required.
This has not happened. Teleconferences are stubbornly 2D, and there is no call for a third dimension. Some people, myself included, would not miss the 2D visual aspect at all, would quite happily drop back to voice only!
In one respect, though, VR has come and has taken over our lives without us realising. When we interact with our smartphones, texting, sending photos, emails and so on, in real time, we are immersing ourselves in a new sort of VR. When we are chatting about something and someone gets the cellphone out to google the Internet to check or look something up, we are delving into a new Virtual Reality that we could not have envisaged way back in 1999.
So when I look back at my paper from that era, I could easily update it and make relevant to the current era, but only in the respect of that limited view of VR. That has not really eventuated, and most likely will have limited application (remote appendectomy anyone?), but it could be considered that facebook/twitter/google/gmail/dropbox and all the other tools that we use on our smartphones has opened up a different alternate Virtual Reality that crept up on us while we were not watching.