Virtual reality as been imagined for a very long time as a natural consequence of technological development. However, it seems to share the same fate of videophone: largely predicted decades before (2001 Space Odyssey), it failed to become a paradigm-shifting technology. Today we have videophones but the possibility of making videocalls is probably not the most important functionality of out smartphones/tablets/notebooks, even if it’s quite used.
Will be the same for virtual reality? I don’t think so. I really think that virtual reality will have a huge impact on our society and on commercial services.
Let’s merge together virtual reality and augmented reality as a single results of the possibility of driving our senses with a computer generated content. I will just focus about “visual” and “acoustic” VR, in spite the fact that other senses can be virtualized as well, like smell, touch, acceleration, wind, temperature, humidity, etc…
My thought is that once that you have visual and acoustic VR, you have 80% of a perfect ideal virtual reality. Acoustic VR has already heavily impacted our lives for decades: today we can listen a music everywhere with just earphones. Noise insulation is still challenging thought. In spite of many annouced virtual reality devices made in past 2 decades, a very high quality VR is still not available, even if we are about to see its birth? Why? Well, reproduction quality is the most important key factor of any virtualization technology. Which are the requirement of a paradigm-shift virtual reality?
- High resolution. Human eye has a resolution of 1 minute-arc. For a FOV of 120°x90° it’s about 7200×5400. Not ready yet.
- Rendering quality. Reproducing a scene with a quality indistinguishable from reality is still computational unfeasible. However, very good detail quality is achieved with current GPUs in games, even if for lower resolution.
- High dynamic range. This is the most limiting factor. Some scenes require HDR of 1,000,000:1, like an indoor environment with an open window during a sunny day. Probably also a lower HDR could provide the same
- Reactivity. This has a dramatic importance for achieving a very immersive experience. State-of-the-art accelerometers and low-latency processing should allow this already. High refresh frequency and low latency are the key factors.
Is this a paradigm shifting technology? Of course it is. I can only enlist some of the applications that comes to my mind:
- Virtual tourism of existing places. We can really enjoy the landscape of Machu Picchu without spending thousand dollars to arrange the travel. Obviously we wouldn’t have the scent of the vegetation and the wind (and the insects) but it would really be a nice experience. Or let’s think to a sort of walkable Google-Street like environment. We would be able to walk in Tokyo, and maybe even enter inside the buildings, either in a realistic reproduction or a virtual reproduction.
- Virtual tourism of virtual places. This should be funny. Walking through imaginary cities, developed by skilled 3D renders. This could be part of a game (e.g. a FPS) or just a visual experience. It will be some kind of augmented Second Life, everybody can have it’s own building in a HUGE virtual city end it could define the style inside and outside the building. Different cities with different architectural styles. And we could walk, run or fly in these cities.
- Virtual meetings. Well, it will be an improved version of existing video conference. Not a radical change, but anyway it could improve things. The possibility of customizing the meeting location could be a funny feature.
- Augmented TV. We will follow sport events like if we are attending at the stadium. Again, virtual and real stuff can be merged together. In example, the players on the pitch are real, but the spectators are just avatars of other online supporters.
- Augmented websites. Real estate advertisement can provide a full VR experience inside the property on sale. Website like Amazon can allow the user to see the item, how it looks like. Social networks can probably integrate somehow VR feature.
So, let’s wait for Oculus Rift and their comptetitors. I am not sure if Oculus Rift can already give a full immersive experience, my idea is that we will need to wait for a big company to invest a couple of billions in a product like this, before having a revolutionary product. Can’t wait to walk in a lunar base or to see Saturn in front of my eyes.