Hi everyone, I’m sad to say that this will be my last blog post for the FRL, as I will be leaving here Friday after 5 years working with the lab. It’s been a great journey working with everyone here! My original plan was to write a retrospective on what I’ve done in the lab, but that felt boring. So instead, we’re going to talk about what I believe the next steps for VR systems should be.
Over the past 5 or 6 years, I have observed tremendous growth in the AVR space. Given that growth, it seems easy to project that in another 5 to 10 years, we could see them in ubiquitous use, similar to how we use cell phones today. But what will it actually take to get there? I believe there are some fundamental things that will need to change.
Primarily, I think it is less important to consider what more they can do for us, and instead to look to minimize what they take away from us. Current VR devices can already give us boundless potential for education and entertainment (among other things). But, we don’t use them because they take so much away from our standard life workflow. Below are some things AVR systems will need to become in order to reduce the overall burden of using them, and therefore become practically useful.
A Platform for Future Reality
A long time ago, in my first blog post, I wrote about the eventual unification of AR, VR, and MR systems. Right now, if you purchase a headset, they are all categorized into AR, VR, or MR. Due to technological limitations, most headsets that are built for one paradigm cannot adapt to allow for others (*MR can be a bit more flexible depending on your definition). This causes the devices to be limited in use and practicality. If I want to switch from a VR mode to an AR mode, I would need two different headsets to achieve this. For several reasons, this is completely impractical.
Instead, our devices should be able to seamlessly transition between any mode. We should be able to experience fully virtualized environments as well as simple digital overlays and graphical models within our real world in the same device. Our devices need to enhance our world in everyday use, not bring us into a realm of narrow use-cases.
Of course, this is all dependent on the evolution of technology. But, in understanding the benefits of a unified system that enables everything we want out of AR, VR, and MR, we can push the technology towards that ultimate goal.
A Tool for Social Enhancements
I believe the greatest power we can get from VR devices is the ability to enhance our daily communications with people. Not just the people far away from us, but the ones right next to us as well. By allowing for co-location, VR goes from being a tradeoff to an improvement. Instead of looking to replace our current social paradigms, we should look to use technology to enhance how we socialize.
Recent VR has somewhat disappointed me, in that it has had a very “personal-use” focused approach to development. When we build our systems to serve only a single user, we lose a large part of what makes us human. While it is certainly the case that not everything needs to be suited for multiple people, the option to include others should always be available.
It is very easy to make single-player experiences in a system where multi-player experiences are enabled. It is much harder to do the opposite. By pushing towards environments and systems that enable easy-to-use multi-person interaction, we give ourselves much greater freedom to develop any sort of virtual experience.
A System without Burden
Perhaps the most fundamental limitation of current HMDs are their unwieldy form factor. While we have come a far way from Ivan Sutherland’s Sword of Damocles, we are still some ways off of having a truly comfortable headset. Current hardware limits us here, requiring bulky batteries, processors, and optics all loaded onto the headset. After just half an hour of use, this weight can cause great discomfort for a user, even among the more comfortable headsets. In terms of our biomechanics and physiology, we are not meant to have extra weight on the front of our heads. This means that long-term use is off the table without the danger of injury.
While a great deal of this will naturally go away due to the gradual development of smaller and tighter components, I believe there are some design decisions we can make now to create a better device for the user. For example, I was greatly impressed by Magic Leap’s decision to offload the battery into a pack which the user wears on their waist. This allowed for a much lighter weight head-mounted device than anything I had previously used. By considering designs like this, we can more seamlessly transition into a world where we have these lightweight devices.
It’s also important to understand that other factors, such as the possibility of remote processing and rendering, will help move this process along. Overall, I am less worried about this component than others, since the hardware will naturally gravitate towards lighter and more comfortable devices. Still, it is so important in considering what holds VR back now that I wanted to put it on this list.
This is by no means a comprehensive list. Lots of work must be done in the space if we want VR to succeed in a larger scope. But to me, that’s part of what makes it exciting. We don’t have a completely solved product. The first step in creating solutions is to figure out what the problems are in the first place.
Even though I’ll be leaving the lab, I hope to take the ideas and visions we’ve developed together and turn Future Reality into Reality. For those continuing at the lab, I know you’ll do the same. While this is the end of my time here, we’re all just getting started!