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Virtual reality: Now that it’s ‘mainstream,’ where do we go from here?

In a recent article, I made an off-handed comment that virtual reality (VR) was starting to gain traction and was rapidly on its way to becoming a mainstream technology. Since the time that I wrote that piece, VR has taken another big step toward the mainstream. In the Fall Creators Update for Windows 10, Microsoft has included VR capabilities (which the company refers to as mixed reality) natively within the Windows operating system. Because of all of the recent advancements in VR, the technology is less expensive, easier to use, and more readily accessible than ever before. But now that VR is widely regarded as a mainstream technology, what can we do with it?

Before I delve into a discussion of what may be coming next for virtual reality, I need to take a step back and define virtual reality as it applies to this article. This is because the term virtual reality gets tossed around a lot, and has several different meanings. Some people, for example, define virtual reality as 360-degree video. Others define virtual reality as 180-degree side-by-side video that can be rendered in 3D through a VR headset. For the purposes of this article, I am defining virtual reality as a computer-generated, navigable, 3D environment. In other words, true VR has to be more than just a video.

A technology still maturing

As I have worked with various virtual reality applications, I have spent time thinking about what those applications have in common with one another, and how virtual reality might evolve to break away from the status quo. This is important because in spite of its long history, virtual reality is still not yet a mature technology. In fact, I think that VR technology is still finding itself and that its full potential has yet to be realized.

So with that said, the one thing that most, if not all virtual reality applications seem to have in common is… well, um… reality. Of course, I have seen some of the awesome virtual reality gaming applications that create fantasy worlds that could hardly be described as reality, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Think about it for a moment. The primary goal of virtual reality is to stimulate your senses in a way that tricks your brain into at least partially believing that what you see in the headset is real. In order to do that, the virtual world mimics many of the attributes of the physical world as closely as possible. Even if a virtual world is purely fantasy, it still has parallels to the physical world. For example, your senses of sight and hearing work the same way in both the virtual and physical world. Fundamental attributes of our world such as the force of gravity, or the passing of time, usually work the same way in both the virtual world and the physical world.

Of course one of the big differences between the virtual world and the physical world is that the virtual world is not real. As such, I see no reason why the laws of physics cannot be bent to our advantage, or even broken altogether in a virtual world. I am guessing that some of the VR-enabled games probably already do this (I’m not much of a gamer, so I don’t really know). But why should VR-based engineering applications, or even business applications for that matter, have to conform to the laws of physics? I’m serious.

So if we are going to break the laws of physics, let’s start with time travel. Is there any reason why a VR-based CAD application can’t allow “time travel” through the entire history of a project so that an engineer can view the project as it existed at a previous point in time? What if artificial intelligence could also be incorporated as a way of allowing the computer to guess what the project might look like in the future, based on what the AI engine has learned about the project from its development thus far? On a side note, Microsoft is about to add a timeline feature to Windows.

Another physical rule that I would be keen on breaking in the virtual world is that of the consistency of shapes and sizes. I’m sure there are probably video games in which players can shapeshift into a werewolf or something like that, but what about being able to change your own perceived size for the sake of doing something productive? Imagine engineers being able to virtually shrink themselves to the size of an ant so that they could inspect the design of a jet engine’s combustion chamber from the inside. Imagine that same engineer being able to virtually turn into a giant so that he or she could get a big picture view of the project. Certainly image zooming is nothing new, but the concept takes on new possibilities when used in conjunction with the virtual world.

Fusing reality and virtual reality

Finally, why does virtual reality have to totally cut us off from the physical world? Yes, augmented reality solutions attempt to project computer rendered images into the physical world, but why can’t a true virtual reality solution blur the lines between the physical and virtual worlds? Let me give you a really simple example.

Microsoft’s mixed reality environment that is included with Windows 10 is called Cliff House. For those who have not seen Cliff House, it is a virtual representation of a seaside, open-air mansion that is perched on the edge of a cliff. Mixed reality users can wander around the property, place objects in strategic locations, and interact with those objects.

The first time that I used the Cliff House environment, I found that I lost all sense of time. I assumed that I had been in the virtual world for about 45 minutes when in reality it had been three hours. With that in mind, imagine how this might change if I placed a functional clock on one of the house’s walls. Cliff House is a completely fictional, virtual environment, and yet the clock would reflect the real time. The clock, therefore, becomes a bridge between the physical and the virtual worlds.

My point is that a virtual world does not have to be completely isolated from the physical world. Instead, virtual reality can become much more powerful and useful when it is used as a new way of visualizing the physical world. In fact, it can even solve one of the age-old problems that are inherent in using a computer — lack of screen real estate.

Imagine for a moment that you are responsible for keeping a large network secure. There are countless network monitoring tools and security monitoring tools available from a wide variety of vendors, but none of these tools will let you see the entire network all at once, without sacrificing detail in the process. Now, imagine that you can bring all the network monitoring data and security into the world of VR. What if you could walk around a virtual representation of the network, visualizing all of the layers at once? What if you could visually see what types of packets were being blocked by your firewall? What if you could see the storage queues backing up on one of your servers as if the normally invisible items in the queues were physical objects? How might being able to visualize your network in this way change your perception of the network’s health, security, or efficiency?

Of course, I am just using network monitoring as an example. The same basic principle can be applied to any business situation. Imagine being able to virtual walk a factory floor and having real-life IoT sensor data that is reflected in the virtual world so that you can get a true sense of the factory’s productivity. Any business that produces electronic performance metrics could conceivably benefit from having a new way of visualizing that data.

More than a game

Although still often regarded as a toy or a game, VR headsets are destined to become indispensable business tools. Some of the recently released VR conferencing and collaboration applications are incredible, as are some of the VR engineering and architectural tools.

For right now, the main benefit to VR is that it is giving us a new way of visualizing and interacting with computing environments. Computers have been using GUI desktops since the late 1980s, and although the design has evolved over time, the basic use has remained largely the same for the last 30 years. VR environments are unchaining us from the limits of two-dimensional monitors and allowing us to work in ways that have not been possible until now.

Photo credit: Microsoft