A few weeks ago, I was having an interesting conversation with my 13-year-old cousin. Apparently, his school’s computer lab had received an early-release Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, and all of the students are free to use it at their leisure. At that moment, I thought to myself, “Wow, we are living in an age where students actually have free access to VR technology.” Granted, the Oculus Rift is a gaming peripheral, first and foremost, but just the fact that you can pop on a headset and ride a rollercoaster makes me realize that the stuff of science fiction may not stay that way for much longer, and if that’s the case, it might be time to start thinking bigger.
Virtual reality, as well as similar concepts such as augmented reality, the Internet of Things, and holograms all tie into one overarching idea: bringing the real world and the virtual world closer together. It’s not just about throwing on a headset and playing video games (as cool as that is); it’s about using these kinds of artificial constructs to expand our world and the way we look at it. By lessening the distance between ourselves and our technology, we can gain a better understanding of it, and by extension, glean more benefit from it. VR technology is more or less just a novelty in the public eye, but all over the world people have been using it for both entertainment and practical purposes.
Similar to the Oculus Rift, let’s look at an older video game peripheral, the Microsoft Kinect. As a gaming peripheral, it’s…well, it’s not great, but as a piece of technology, it’s allowed for all sorts of experimental ideas in the hands of visionaries. Since the Kinect is essentially a 3D capture camera, it allows us to transmit bodily signals into digital movement. Talented programmers have used Kinects as a means of controlling small robots. Even the folks at NASA got onboard the train. Utilizing a Kinect for motion capture and an Oculus Rift to provide a first person view, an experimenter could control a robotic arm with nothing but the movement of his own limbs. Following this ideology, it could be possible to created manned humanoid robots where the pilots are miles away, which could be helpful in dangerous situations like construction or combat.
There are numerous applications on smartphones and handheld game consoles these days that use augmented reality to create something new and interesting. Schools have utilized AR-enabled pictures with tablets to create 3D images, like a 3D model of a human brain or a scale model of the solar system for more detailed study. Yelp’s Monocle app shows the locations of popular restaurants with reviews overlaid onto camera footage from your phone. If AR can reach its apex, we could manage the entirety of our phones, computers even, with nothing but our hands and eyes.
As we reach our hands into the digital world, the digital world reaches back. Just last week, I read an article about a holographic AI assistant being developed by a Japanese company. Using the Internet of Things, it can power on and off your appliances, as well as take notes and manage your schedule, all while maintaining a jovial, conversational tone. Supposedly, the way the AI talks to you actually changes depending on how you communicate with it. Holographic characters have actually been part of our popular culture for years now, thanks to holographic musicians like the Gorillaz and Hatsune Miku. Is it that strange to think an AI wants to be your friend? Well, yeah, kind of, but wait a few years, and then we’ll see.
Let’s be real here: we live in truly astounding times. Since 2000, we have made computers that we can control with just our hands, overlaid the digital world onto our own, and brought characters made of nothing but ones and zeroes to life (or at least a rough approximation of life). The technology for all of these concepts is still in infancy, but if we can keep up this progress at the phenomenal rate we’ve been going, it’s not too strange to think that in the next couple of decades, the real world and the digital world will become indistinguishable. That being said, the number of movies and TV shows I’ve seen involving people being trapped in virtual reality games worries me a teensy bit, so let’s try and keep this tech in the right hands, yeah?