By Eicorn’s Founding Partner Christian Lauritzen
“Darling, can you help me chop this onion?”
“Sure. Just give me a few minutes. I am at work, in a meeting!”
“Sorry! I didn’t see that you were in VR.”
It is not an impossible scenario. You go to work by putting on your Virtual Reality (VR) gear. In the virtual space, you meet up with your colleagues and do whatever you normally do. The technology has been around for a long time, gradually improving. But this summer a game changer took place. Over 100 million people got directly or indirectly introduced to Augmented Reality, or AR, as Pokemon Go was launched. As a consequence, new ideas surfaced, new needs emerged, and a multitude of VR and AR related equipment and applications are now being developed. VR and AR are not yet natural parts of everyday life, but we are approaching such a reality rapidly. I recently read about an British bank that tested interviewing candidates in VR, and new examples of uses pop up daily.
What about the virtual world as the natural meeting place? It is possible to meet up in virtual space, and has been for a long time. You can chat and interact as avatars. Still, something is lacking. Meeting in VR does for most folks not present a wow-experience that immediately makes it a natural meeting place. People like to see each other, and not avatars.
I suspect that that one of the biggest obstacles yet for the big breakthrough of VR and AR as a meeting place is that it does not provide the human components of a physical meeting. Gazes, facial expressions and body language. It is easy getting used to wearing VR-glasses quite quickly, but it is not as easy getting used to be blind to “read” the people you are meeting with. It is ok to be in virtual environments, but it is not sufficient to only to see models of the people you are interacting with. But wait! We have all that in video conferencing! True, but there you don’t have the spatial experience, making that too a poor substitute to meeting in person. 3D video conferencing would however take us one step closer.
The emphasis in the development of VR and AR is very much on the experiencing of being in the virtual environment, with continuously better results. As a consequence, a multitude of new devises are entering the market. Sony VR will be in the stores tomorrow, bringing VR to the gaming market big time. HTC Vive and Microsoft HoloLens and Oculus showcases visual performance. Google provides a budget experience with its Cardboard kit that turns your mobile into a VR devise, which in itself is quite amazing, and has sold over 5 million such devises. Still, the basic concept has been the same for the last 20 years, only better and more accessible, and now also more wide spread.
Still, I believe the real boom for spending time and meeting up in VR will come when VR devices also are able to accurately capture the person using them. That would add the “human” touch. It is hard to say what such a solution would look like. Maybe we will see VR/AR-glasses with several built-in cameras facing the wearer, working together to transmit a picture of the wearer as if no glasses were worn. Eyes and expressions would be visible despite the headset. We might see combinations of external be 3D cameras along with devices that don’t obstruct the face or the eyes. There are already cool examples such as Samsung’s patented contact lenses with built in displays. There is also equipment that makes laser projections on the retina (VRD). Eventually we will likely have projections directly to the optic nerve or even straight into the visual cortex (experiments are being done on mice). Who knows?
Time will tell. The point is that the recipient will hear you, see you, and be able to read your expressions and your body language, just as in real life. You will be visible digitally, and you would communicate very close to how you communicate in the physical world. It should be an experience very similar to meeting in person. Of course, your projection will likely be digitally enhanced. Smoother skin, better hair, different clothes etc. Maybe different bodily shapes. That can be done already today. But the main benefit is that the non verbal communication will be included. The subtle nuances would not be lost.
With such solutions, I believe we will have a game changer. The virtual meeting would be good enough to often replace physical meetings. That, in itself, will have some quite interesting consequences, including its effect on the transportation industry.
I am really hoping to see more projects and ventures that will bridge this gap. Before that, the physical meeting will be preferable in most situations. The potential of VR and AR as natural ways of meeting people in everyday life, even though affordable VR equipment becomes widely available, will remain dormant.