We experience the world as a smooth and constant stream of perception. At least that is how we interpret it. Reality is wildly different. We only are able to perceive heavily filtered bits of the world around us through, depending how you count, about a dozen senses. The resulting signals travel to the brain where they are woven into a reality even though they don't arrive at the moment we perceive them and they don't arrive at once. Our present is a window about a second and a half wide that scrolls along seeming like an instant with some older bits of sensory information as old as fifteen seconds thrown in for good measure. Our now is a fairly long now. Interacting in real time, say catching a falling object, is limited by the faster perception components and give us our reaction time. At the moment our muscles are commanded to act we don't have a complete picture of the moment as it is still under construction, but we don't realize it until later. This can be troubling to some as it has implications about free will, but how the brain paints our version of reality - our personal virtual reality - is beautiful.
This ability to weave a reality in our mind makes reading a great author a powerful experience. The vision from the pages can be incredibly rich - sometimes richer than the immediate reality we experience. The same is true for music, but the images are more abstract. It is the enabling foundation of our love of storytelling.
Several types of systems referred to as virtual reality that have been in the news these days. Most display computer generated stereo images to give the illusion of three dimensions along with some form of located sound. The user can move around and interact in these environments, although that tends to be restricted. They're a far cry from how we sense where we are in space and how we perceive and move around in a real 3d space. Stereo vision is only a component and there can be disturbing cross-talk from your other senses (like your inner ear) that can make the experience confusing and even nauseating. A good deal of clever hackery has been done to minimize the bad effects, but we're a long way off from simulating location and movement - let alone sound and interaction. What exists now is may be very good for certain classes of games and perhaps some forms of mostly passive storytelling where you do little more than look around. Understanding how we use a new media has historically required a generation or two of artists to get to the point where good storytelling happens.
There are many other types of systems that use the sometimes use the label - augmented reality (Google Glass) where information is overlaid on a sense (typically vision) , enhanced reality - where senses are extended beyond what we normally can sense (extend your vision into the infrared or ultraviolet .. or add a magnetic field sense), simple multi-camera recording systems that capture 360° video and allow you to choose your view naturally by simply looking around, and so on. I would argue that books should be on the list as an example of old technology and along with lucid storytelling.
How this develops and how it is used is up in the air. Augmented reality has been used for years in industry and computer generated virtual reality dates back to the late 1960s at Evans & Sutherland.1 Simple 3d stitchings like QTVR have been called VR when viewed through stereo displays. There are some really interesting social science questions that have been difficult to tease out that are now doable as it is possible to put someone in another person's shoes for things like height and physical challenges.
Everyone jumps to the remote workplace and conferencing, but I suspect we'll see a succession of niches. Right now remotely piloted drones are used halfway around the world, robots that give presence in failed Japanese reactor buildings and Mars rovers, so we have a few good use examples. It isn't clear how important the technology will be for conferencing and calling as people are highly adaptable to limits. I was startled to learn that although people can detect the difference between 20 kHz stereo audio and 7 kHz mono, they often prefer the later and low fidelity, but intelligible audio on mobile phones is preferred to high quality audio by people under 25. People also seem to be happy with low quality web images with poor and uncalibrated color fidelity. A huge learning to me over the years is for many applications quality measured by engineering metrics doesn't matter much in the real world.
Another set of questions is who makes and who finds the standard uses of the developing technologies (these are often different groups). The people who create the foundational technologies have historically been fairly clueless about projecting final use cases. A few years ago I was compelled to write a post as a reaction to a danah boyd piece on sexism and VR. (the second half of the piece - I start out with Cosmos 2.0 and wander into sexual dimorphism).
And which senses are important for which applications? How will we communicate forces -- touch, g forces. How good does sound have to be? We're often more sensitive to that than to images and general sound field reconstruction is a hard problem. What about the gyro and accelerometer of the inner ear? The list goes on and on. Since the late 80s (a 25 pound helmet display, pulleys and a counterweight tethered to a half million dollars of computer) I've tried a dozen or so approaches to 3d vision VR and am always left feeling disoriented and nauseous. This is true even with the latest Oculus kit paired with a $6k fairly exotic PC (that kept crashing) and content authored for the device. I'm fairly convinced the approach doesn't play well with the neural wiring of my synesthesia.
But with all of the challenges at this point it is easy to identify a few bits of low hanging fruit as well as major obstacles. We'll probably see a continuation of the gradual rollout of the technology that has been taking place for nearly fifty years. I'd give it some time before it becomes a general displacing technology. An observation is we place great value in 'being there' - a business meeting, conference, sporting event or vacation location may cost thousands of dollars to attend in person plus a good deal of time and inconvenience when a video and audio link of the same event is free. Of course we know why now .. but what does it take to close the gap?
In the meantime there are some simple steps you can take to make video conferencing much better as well as a few that, while more difficult, would vastly improve the experience and even remove some embedded sexism. And be sure and enjoy your own personal virtual reality. It is far better than anything you're likely to experience in your lifetime and comes as a free feature of being a human.
1 Evans & Sutherland was something of an offshoot of the University of Utah. It is interesting to look at schools that were visionary in hindsight. The U of U had an outsized importance. Pixar and Adobe have their roots there, computer generated art became real at the place - some people jokingly call the Utah teapot the sixth Platonic solid - the Teapotahedron:-) The U of U was also one of the four original ARPANET nodes at the birth of what later became known as the Internet. And of course there was the dynabook - which has now been realized with the iPad.
I played with an oil based garlic bread. Use one of those long crunchy rustic loaves .. like what garlic bread is made with. I used a garlic infused oil as it was sitting around. You could smash a few cloves and let them soak in oil for a few hours and brush the oil and what is left of the cloves onto the bread directly.
'Healthy' Garlic Bread
° about 3 tbl of a garlic infused olive oil
° 1 tbl honey
° the of a half lemon
° some sea salt (about a tsp)
° a loaf of your favorite rustic bread
° put the olive oil, honey, lemon juice and salt in a small bowl and wisk
° slice the bread into good sized (3/4" for me) slices
° brush the liquid onto the bread and let it sit for a few minutes
° broil the bread until it browns and the edges get crispy
° let it cool a bit before service.