The Internet Allowed Us to Learn Anything—VR Will Let Us Experience Everything

January 23, 2016


I have something to admit—to this day, I’m in awe of Wikipedia. Humanity has created a massive repository of our knowledge available for free to anyone with an Internet connection. All of our presidents and kings, theories and discoveries, just waiting to be read about and discovered. About once a month I’ll lose an afternoon to some obscure topic.

It’s not just Wikipedia, though. The Internet has liberated information from the constraints of the physical world and essentially made the sharing of information free and unlimited for everyone. From communicating with friends on free Skype calls to taking university-level classes on Coursera and Udacity, our current access and connectivity dwarfs anything we’ve seen before.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember what an astounding leap we’ve made in our ability to share information. Reading books used to be the domain of only the privileged elite, while long-distance communication was either impossible or prohibitively expensive. Now both are cheap, convenient, and nearly instantaneous.

By democratizing the availability of information, the Internet has massively evened the playing field around the world by allowing anyone to contribute and learn from the global community.

The problem with the Internet is that while it is a fantastic tool for spreading information, sometimes information without experience can lose its impact. Massive open online courses have fantastic content, yet a very low percentage of students end up finishing them. It’s great to see my friend’s posts on Instagram and Snapchat, but nothing beats being together in person. And no matter how many times I’ve read about the Apollo 11 mission, I’ve never taken a step on the moon.

But that’s all going to change. Just as the Internet and smartphones have enabled the rapid and cheap sharing of information, virtual reality will be able to provide the same for experiences. That means that just as we can read, listen to, and watch videos of anything we want today, soon we’ll be able to experience stunning lifelike simulations in virtual reality.

And just as the democratization of information reshaped society, this is going to have a massive impact on the way we work, live, and play.

The Teleportation Device

By now, you’ve probably heard about the virtual reality resurgence led by Oculus. Virtual reality is an extremely hot field, with hundreds of millions of dollars of investment and basically every big name technology or media company getting in on the VR gold rush.

And if you’ve met VR true believers, you know the near fanatical interest they have in VR.

But why? What is it about these goofy ski goggles that has so thoroughly captured the hearts and minds of technologists across the globe?

It all boils down to one word: presence. Presence is the phenomenon that occurs when your brain is convinced, on a fundamental and subconscious level, that the VR simulation you are experiencing is real.

This doesn’t mean that you forget you’re in a simulation. But it does mean that when you ride a VR roller coaster, you feel it.

The Internet made the world smaller. VR is about to make it exhilarating.

Want to watch the Super Bowl from the fifty-yard line? Be on stage at your favorite concert? Or just visit and explore a faraway country? Well, that’s exactly what Mark Zuckerberg wants you to be able to do on the Oculus Rift.

Welcome to virtual reality in 2016. You can do all of this today, and it’s only going to get better. Lifelike, immersive, and available to anyone with a VR headset. Using 360-degree video and light field technology, we can now capture real-life events and distribute them to anyone, anywhere.

Soon you’ll be able to explore every city, watch every sports game, and explore the universe in VR. Content plus presence is an extremely potent combination.

But everything is more fun with a friend. Luckily, you’ll never have to be alone in VR.

The Magic Mirror

Part of the great sadness of the modern world is being able to text, call, and video chat with friends and family from all over the planet but never truly feel like you’re with them. Sometimes this ghost of a connection can paradoxically be worse than nothing, being just realistic enough to make you miss your loved ones without feeling the true warmth of their presence.

We now know that the very magic of virtual reality comes from presence. Multi-user virtual reality can enable a specific kind of phenomenon—social presence.

Just as presence in virtual reality occurs when your brain believes on a fundamental level that the scene you are experiencing is real, social presence can convince your brain to believe that the other people in the VR experience are really there with you.

That means that all of those experiences we’re excited about in VR, we’ll be able to experience with anyone we choose as if we’re all really there. An average Tuesday night in the VR future could include dropping into a professional conference with a coworker of yours, watching a football game with your father on the other side of the country, then hopping into a VR concert with your best friend from high school—all without leaving the house.

Now, nothing is going to replace spending quality time with the people around you, but technology at its best expands the opportunities for human creativity and communication to flourish—and VR is a massive step forward for this.

The Next Revolution

The rise of the Internet was one of the most profound developments of the past century. The Internet famously allowed the futurist Ray Kurzweil to conclude that “A kid in Africa has access to more information than the president of the United States did 15 years ago.” Well, pretty soon, that kid is going to have more opportunity for experiences too.

Pretty soon, we’ll be learning in virtual-reality classrooms, shopping at virtual-reality stores, and even working in virtual-reality offices.

We can only begin to speculate on the long-term consequences of this. How are cities affected when the VR office becomes the standard? How will the entertainment industry respond to live-streamed VR sports and concerts? Can we finally create a digital university that surpasses the quality of our oldest and grandest learning institutions?

Sometimes this all seems hard to fathom. Could we really see these massive changes coming in just a few short years?

When I consider the nearness of these changes, I keep returning to the Internet, to Wikipedia—one of the greatest creations of the Internet and the democratization of information.

After that, it doesn’t seem so unlikely after all.

Virtual reality, the death of morality, and the perils of making the virtual ever more real

October 12, 2014


As the technology that underpins virtual reality develops and the experiences become increasingly more real, I’ve been pondering a particularly morbid thought: When will we have the first VR-induced death? Will a realistic rocket launcher blast in Team Fortress 2 or VR version of Silent Hill give you a heart attack? Will watching the chase sequence in Casino Royale in full VR 3D pump enough adrenaline into your system that your heart beat becomes arrhythmic, eventually leading to death? Will a a VR experience be so realistic that you get so swept up in the moment that you run into a wall or jump out a window?

I’ve always been fascinated by the interrelationship of real and virtual worlds, and how technological advancement has brought them steadily closer and closer together until it can be very hard to discern the virtual from the real. The simplest virtual worlds — those created in your head with your imagination, perhaps with the aid of a good book — are very easily differentiated from reality (by most humans, anyway). Early digital virtual worlds, like EverQuest or Discworld MUD, started to blur the lines with persistence, graphics, and other interactive elements that trigger very real-world reactions (both physical and psychosomatic). And now, as we move into an era of ultra-high-resolution displays, 3D audio, and advanced AI, it’s possible to create some very real virtual worlds indeed.

I don’t think we’ve yet seen someone actually scared to death by a modern 3D/VR setup, but it’s only a matter of time. The precedent hascertainly been set over the last few years, though, especially when it comes to MMOs and other “grindy” games — there have been a handful of cases of people dying of exhaustion because they neglected their basic needs (food, sleep, exercise). In some cases, these people had some kind of underlying condition that made such physically and emotionally intensive experiences more likely to cause death — but as the technology becomes ever more immersive, and designers and architects create games and virtual worlds that are indiscernible from the real thing, I think VR death will be a somewhat regular occurrence.

Even if you don’t agree that VR will scare people to death, at the very least I think we can agree that full VR experiences will be incredibly absorbing. If an MMO like World of Warcraft or Lineage can keep people sitting down for days on end, VR will up the ante considerably. I’m not saying that people will start dropping like flies as soon as the first immersive VR experiences become readily available, but there will definitely be more deaths from exhaustion and users generally not looking after their physical and emotional needs.

Kil'jaedan kill shot (Iron Edge, Delling)

This is before we consider the other inevitable VR-related problems that will be caused by misuse of the technology, irresponsible developers, and dozens of other indirect issues. If an iPod and some headphones can distract someone enough that they walk into the path of some traffic or an oncoming train, imagine the perils of using VR outside the safety of room; even wandering around your house could be dangerous. Despite the relatively low-quality VR produced by Oculus Rift, there are already reports of people experiencing the odd sensation of a fraying, blurring divide between real and virtual that persists for a few minutes after detaching from a VR device. A curious and/or malevolent game developer, after getting a taste for the immersion provided by VR, could easily craft an experience that’s intended to cause mental or physical harm.

Indirectly, but still significantly, a whole host of issues might arise if a significant proportion of the populace are constantly strapped into their VR setup. There have already been a few sad cases of parents being so engrossed by a virtual world that their baby/child died from neglect — or worse – and I’m sure it’ll only get worse as advanced VR tech matures.


This weird exoskeleton adds the sensation of touch to virtual reality

October 5, 2014


Virtual reality is so much more than visuals, but most of what we’re used to seeing is little more than head-tracking and 3D imagery in a head-mounted display. For real immersion, VR is going to need to take advantage of the other senses as well. Touch and smell are just as important as sight and sound, but those are much harder problems to solve. Thankfully, a company by the name of Dexta Robotics is developing a peripheral to simulate the sensation of touch in a virtual world.

We’re on the brink of a massive wave of consumer-friendly virtual reality solutions. The Oculus Rift has stirred up enough interest over the last year or two that everyone from tiny engineering projects to giant corporations are investigating VR. However, nearly everything we’ve seen is focused on the motion-tracking and display parts of the VR equation. Thankfully, this mechanical exoskeleton dubbed the “Dexmo F2” is being designed specifically to give you the experience of touching a solid object.

In a Q&A on Reddit, a Dexta representative went into the details of how this oddball mechanical skeleton works. In this early model, the pointer finger and the thumb are fitted with a tiny disc braking system that prevents the joints from moving past a specific point. If you’re trying to pick up a virtual object, your finger and thumb will actually meet resistance like it would if you were picking up an object in the real world.

Unfortunately, this prototype doesn’t have the ability to convey exactly how firm the object in question is. As it stands, the brakes are either on or off — there is no middle ground. It’s disappointing, but remember that this is extremely early on in the life of virtual touch. To keep costs down, this early model doesn’t even have the ability to simulate touch on the other three fingers. The prototype will supposedly be available through a Kickstarter campaign later this month for under $200, so keep that in mind before you go off and pre-order a Dexmo F2 for your very own.

This implementation is bulky, cumbersome, limited in scope, and extremely unattractive, but don’t let that fool you. If we want real virtual reality, we have to go through some growing pains. Of course your grandpa is never going to strap on this weird mechanical spider, but this kind of research is a stepping stone to true Matrix-style immersion.