Virtually Relevant

This year’s “Exploring Future Reality” event at New York University was a daylong celebration and examination of technology that is expected to be huge: virtual/augmented/mixed reality.

“Wow, those lemmings look so REALISTIC!”

The opening “State of the Art” panelists ran through a list of exciting developments: Amazon using AR to sell furniture, 360-degree video streams, Google Earth VR, the Hololens. Big companies such Apple and Microsoft are handing out software development kits (SDKs) and other tools that will allow millions of people to try their hands at future reality. Pokemon Go has already taught us that augmented reality can be understood and find a wide audience.

So what stands between VR/AR and a wide audience? First of all, the tech is still clunky — when headsets become lighter and more comfortable, the public will rightly regard them as less of a headache. But the main issue is that even the small percentage of the populace that has tried VR sees it as an experience, not a medium. Many people say “I’ve tried VR” or “I’ve done VR.” Nobody says “I tried movies, I don’t have to try them again.” A broader array of compelling content is needed, which means that a whole generation of artists and technicians have a chance to develop what can be done in VR, what sort of art plays to its unique strengths.

The “Health & Wellness” colloquy covered the ways in which new tech is already causing ripples in the world of medicine. A company called Biodigital has already provided a “Google Maps for the human body” to 3000+ schools. (It plans to add all human diseases and their treatments to its database.) Gross anatomy may be a little less gross for medical students now that 3D images of the human body are so detailed.

How will this novel tech affect our cities? Ken Perlin of the NYU Future Lab claimed that VR/AR headsets will soon be as unremarkable on the streets of New York as cell phones are now. He believes that hi-tech specs will replace many of the interactions we now have with screens. Maybe we’ll even start to look each other in the eye again! (Or, perhaps the demise of net neutrality will allow media conglomerates to reach right through our retinas and plant their ads directly into our brains.)

One group in Brownsville — part of Brooklyn, home to the highest concentration of public housing in America — is trying to turn VR into an empathy machine. Turf wars in the housing projects are so fierce that kids have never seen what lies two blocks from their homes. Activists did 3D scans on both sides of the war zone and then let residents explore them, creating a safe (virtual) space for people to intermingle. Another project showed participants what it’s like to live as a black person in America: to be stared at on the street, frisked by cops at random, turned down for jobs on account of skin color (or “bad culture fit”), et cetera. What would Dickens have done with tools such as these?

At lunch, along with the usual assortment of pasta salads and turkey sandwiches, an assortment of VR/AR demos. Visitors were invited to put virtual gnomes in real landscapes, take 3D tours of Westeros, achieve spiritual/artistic self-actualization (?), take virtual walking tours of Greenwich Village, use wearable biosensors to interact with electronics, control robots, and combine neuroscience with architecture. The number of virtual experiences on display was high enough to made the actual dimensions of the room feel quite inadequate.

To see what the upcoming crop of engineers and hustlers wanted to do with all this future tech, visitors dropped by the startup-pitch session at the nearby Leslie Lab. Everyone was very excited to give us an opportunity to invest in their ideas. It was argued that 3D models of a patient’s veins and arteries would allow doctors to perform surgery with greater confidence; that machine learning would allow 3D models of cityscapes to be created more quickly than ever before, providing Hollywood with affordable skylines to be demolished by invading aliens and/or superheroes; that VR simulations of crisis situations would help police officers deal with distress calls without shooting anyone; and that an app could help students find shelter quickly, in the event of a mass shooting.

When you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail; when you can create lifelike worlds out of pixels, you want to solve every problem with VR. Have we, as a society, decided that the best way to deal with real-world problems is to create ever-more-realistic fantasy realms? Wouldn’t it make more sense to reduce the number of guns in America, rather than increase the number of VR headsets?

No matter — the business of America is business, and nothing drives business like tech these days, so a lot of money and hype will be deployed to bring “future reality” into the present as quickly as possible.

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