We Are VR

“Greetings, user. Welcome to The Overlay.”

In the future, these words may welcome us to a worldwide holographic interface that will permanently and completely transform reality.

We have all heard of virtual reality from movies like The Lawnmower Man and Tron, which opened our imaginations to the idea of constructing a world inside a computer. Although this idea continues to spark interest, the progress in virtual reality technology slowed dramatically as we realized that such a feat was far more difficult than previously thought, and our inability to predict the future became depressingly apparent. In the mid 1990s, Nintendo released a virtual reality gaming console named Virtual Boy, which highlighted just how far the technology hadn’t come. However, the idea has recently surfaced again after the Oculus Rift, a head-mounted display virtual reality display, was displayed at the 2012 Electronics Entertainment Expo.

There are many barriers that virtual reality must overcome if it’s to become an acceptable avenue for education and entertainment. First, and most obviously, the visuals must be convincing. If the user doesn’t believe that they are immersed in an alternate reality, they won’t accept it. This doesn’t mean that it must be indistinguishable from the real world, but only that it must be detailed and believable enough for the user to form a meaningful attachment to the world and its characters. ¬†Although they are important, convincing visuals alone aren’t enough to persuade a user that they are a part of a virtual world.

Another obstacle, which has largely been neglected, is the controls that we use to interact with computers. Even with the most advanced virtual reality display, if we still require the use of a keyboard to give instructions to our virtual character, we won’t be immersed. There has been advancement in motion-sensor technology, such as Microsoft’s Kinect, but such instruments still carry limitations that prevent authentic virtual interaction. First of all, there’s no force feedback, so the user must rely only on sight to determine whether or not they are in contact with an object. Second, these devices only capture motion from a static, unidirectional position, so the user must stand relatively still and face the sensor at all times, which leads to another serious limitation. If the user must remain in one place, then they can’t be directly linked to their virtual character’s motions. After all, the user can’t leave the room, so they must make their character walk by doing something other than walking. This forces users to either use a hand-held controller or symbolic gestures.

Yet another reason why virtual reality fails to persuade us is the fact that users must exit this reality in order to enter a virtual counterpart. Even if the simulated world’s visuals were convincing and the interactions were natural, users would remember that they’re in a virtual world because they must log in and out of that world. This doesn’t mean that the virtual world wouldn’t be fascinating and, to an extent, immersive but users would always know that the world is virtual, so it would be difficult to form emotional bonds with the world’s inhabitants. Without those bonds, users won’t behave in an authentic way, which is an integral component in virtual reality. Unfortunately, this disparity in reality is necessary because of the nature of virtual reality, which is that it is a separate and different world from our own. However, this is not true of augmented reality.

Augmented reality, although similar to virtual reality, is unique in the sense that it is not a distinct, fabricated world, but merely an altered or enhanced version of our own reality. It works by superimposing a virtual layer over the real world, much like the Enterprise’s holodeck , except it is not limited to a single room. This approach is inherently convincing, as the world with which we are interacting actually exists. It also completely circumvents interaction and character control issues, since the user never leaves the real world. However, unlike the holodeck, there are limitations. Augmented reality is simply a visual projection, so it can’t generate completely original objects with which the user may interact. Visually, a user may be instantaneously transported to any location in the universe, but they would still be surrounded by reality, regardless of what they see. Regardless of this adversity, the advantages of augmented reality make it an intriguing alternative to virtual reality. Unfortunately, current augmented reality programs are novelties that are neither expansive nor convincing. But let’s take a moment to imagine the potential that augmented reality can offer.

You wake up one morning, get off your noisy innerspring mattress and walk to the window of your second story, moderate-income apartment. You fumble with the blinds, momentarily pondering the absurdity of the controls, then raise them with the expectation of a gentle sunrise. But the day is not friendly, and it welcomes you with dim, miserable showers. Instead of merely accepting nature’s choice for today’s weather, you instruct your augmented reality system to make it a clear, sunny morning. And while you’re at it, why not change the view from drab industrial buildings and railroad tracks to a vast, serene ocean?

In addition to correcting the morning view, it would allow each user to experience the entirety of reality in their own way. The world would appear exactly as each person wants to see it, transforming each individual’s reality into a paradise. By simply downloading a program, users could change their house, car or even face and body. This would eliminate the need to waste time and energy maintaining appearances. After all, why put on makeup or exercise when your lover sees whatever they want to see?

But this might raise some concerns in those who are wealthy or beautiful in reality. After all, if everyone appears beautiful and wealthy, then this might make beauty and wealth meaningless. Also, if a user’s changes appear only to themselves, they would likely receive criticism from other users. To remedy this, the system could be regulated so that all users view the same thing. A fee could also be charged to download modifications, which would allow wealthier users to benefit from their success and hard work.

Advertisement would also be a big component in this augmented reality, since ads could be placed anywhere and changed instantly. If we fail to make payments, we might have to endure advertisements on our property or even our bodies. We also may be punished for our behavior by having modifications disabled, our property destroyed, or by being transformed into a hideous creature.

These ideas are interesting, as they cause us to question the importance of reality and of wealth, for if everyone could be virtually successful and beautiful at the click of a button, would it satisfy? Also, if everyone is equally wealthy and beautiful, then isn’t everyone is also equally poor and ugly?