[A version of this post was previously published at Think Thrice.]
Like many of us, I spent a lot of the summer days wondering around new parts of my city hoping to spot new and rare monsters. Apart from Pokemon Go, I was pretty new to the world of AR. So, I was stoked to attend the Spotlight AR/VR Conference with some of my colleagues.
The conference covered a lot of ground - the ideas case studies, and demos were illuminating, surprising, and exciting. Below is a quick & dirty round up of the things that stood out for me.
First, a note on definitions...
With AR, a person is still mostly sensing (seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, etc.) in the real world, but it is being augmented somehow using technology. For example, you are walking down a street viewing the world through your smartphone screen - and a monster can pop up on your screen to catch by flicking a poke ball at them. AR requires a smartphone, tablet, or some other specialized device to augment the real world.
With VR, your eyes and ears are completely encased. All you see and hear is the virtual world, but you're still walking around or touching things in real life. It’s like you are in a video game - you look down and you have pixel hands, you look up and around and the virtual world moves as you would expect (except when it doesn't quite line up and ends up making you feel nauseous). Until Westworld becomes a reality, VR requires Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, or one of a number of other VR goggles on the market.
MR is somewhere in the middle. You are seeing the real world but the virtual world is overlaid. For ex. in your home office you might put a floating screen and your favourite Beyonce music video / in your kitchen you might put a hole in the ground that peaks through to a hidden world as if you are up in the clouds. For now, MR requires Microsoft HoloLens. But Magic Leap may be creating something that fits into the MR category as well.
"Talking about virtual reality is like dancing about architecture." -Chris Milk
1. AR can help kids receive faster medical diagnoses.
MRI scans require the person being scanned to lie very still for an extended period of time, which can be a challenge for kids. If a doctor is not confident that the kid can stay still for the MRI, they arrange to provide the child with an anesthetic for the test. The problem is, that MRI scan waitlists are long enough - and they become even longer if you also need book an anesthesiologist at the same time. That's where the idea for Don’t Stumble Tumble came from. It's an assessment and preparation game that helps kids practice lying still during an MRI scan. This AR game fast tracks kids medical treatment by letting doctors know that the child is ready for the test (by achieving a certain high score), is fun to play for the kid, and saves hospitals time and money. I'm interested to see how else health care leverages AR/VR technology.
2. VR can incentive strangers to talk with one another.
A VR game at a tech conference created opportunities for mingling and networking. How it worked was: conference goers lined up to play a two-player VR game. There was a leaderboard in view, and while waiting in line to play, it becomes apparent that the way to get a high score is to team up with the two people behind you in line - so that you can enact a super attack move for you. Eeep, talking to strangers! The game got people chatting and getting to know one another before it was their turn. Nice behaviour hack!
3. AR is not limited to vision.
I was surprised to learn that AR wasn't only about seeing, but could also be for the other senses - hearing, smell, taste, touch. I could see myself using AR earbuds - that can tune out people's voices but keep the noises in environment around you. The Taste Machine was also interesting, where any taste can be electronically simulated - not clear if this would this be good or bad for people with allergies or dieting, but pretty neat to have that ability. Or along the same vein, the Smell Machine could be an interesting way to augment a gallery or cinema experience - like Here There do with actual scent viles and cocktails during film screenings.
4. Hologram chat is a thing.
Woah. Holoportation is a virtual meeting that feel as natural as face to face, plus a bunch of other trippy possibilities. Like shrinking down an entire room of people that you're interacting with and setting them on the table. The potential of this technology was mind boggling. It seems very Total Recall (1990). A hologram of the person you are “meeting” with is projected in front of you and you can see them, their facial features and gestures, as if they are right there. This demo video of a father and daughter interacting as if they are in the same room, blew my mind.
5. Magnets create a videogame-like feedback.
With roomscale VR, players sometimes need a little guidance. Game staff may act as "ghosts" -- subtly shaking a prop in the player's peripheral vision -- proving hints of what may be worth checking out. Or, there may be magnets on objects used in the gameplay, so that when the prop is placed in the intended spot, there is a videogame-like click providing instant feedback to the player (for example, when you place an ancient artifact on pedestal in Escape Tomb).
But our minds will fill in a lot of gaps for us, even without that guidance. In a haunted house game that takes place in a 6 foot by 6 foot space, the house layout included multiple floors and rooms that were layered on to of each other. Even though the house's blueprint doesn’t make sense, the experience is so engaging (and scary!) that you quickly forget logic and walk in circles within the confined space.
6. You can "lose your keys" in mixed reality.
There is such a thing as MR clutter or forgetting where you put something. One presenter, a developer for the HoloLens, shared a story about how he'd forget where he'd leave things (like a youtube music video) and then forget where he'd put it, only to stumble upon it later - much like we misplace things in in real life.
7. Bend AR to your goals.
If you have not already, check out these hilarious videos by Jeremy Bailey where he does just that. Jeremy urged us to use AR as a tool for self expression, to serve our goals and provide value in our lives. It is still early days, and the potential for AR and VR is largely unknown. It is up to the early adopters to play, and break, and hack, and create ways of using the technology that was not part of the original intent. This will push the field and enable even more uses that right now cannot be imagined. Yes!
Other lingering questions...
How can AR/VR help people overcome phobias?
Certainly AR/VR could be a useful tool in the field of exposure therapy, a treatment that exposes you to the very thing a person is afraid of, in small managed doses. The ideas is that over time the fear is reduced or disappears. Leveraging AR/VR for this treatments seems like an obvious fit, especially for certain phobias like sharks, heights, flying... maybe even cucumbers.
What would Cher Horowitz’s AR closet look like?
Serious question. Will choosing what to wear via a computer screen (rather a million try-on combinations) be the norm? Does this take the fun out of getting ready? It could certainly help avoid the heap of clothes on the bed prior to going out. Virtual try-on is already a thing for shopping for glasses. And we’ve all had a meeting wearing a pirate hat, thanks to google hangouts. How could this technology be translated to daily outfit considerations?
How is our notion of realness is changing?
The lines between what we consider real, and what is augmented or virtual reality, are being blurred (a theme explored in TV series Westworld). Is an interaction I have with a hologram real? How can we distinguish what’s real and not? How will the way we construct our reality change?
How can we ensure avatars to represent all of us?
I had not considered the bias of many avatars, that they may exclude the visible diversity of people using games and software. It can be jarring to not be able to play a game as the identity you hold, for example to play a game as a white person if you're a person of colour; or if you must play as a man if you’re a woman. Avatars in game play bring up interesting considerations and question about diversity and inclusion.