The introduction of the internet in the 1990s has ushered in a new era in the history of mankind. We have gone from streaming audio to video in the 2010s. The next obvious step in improving immersion is a recreation of the entire environment shown in any particular sequence. This is where Virtual Reality (VR) comes in. Virtual Reality uses computer-generated 3D environments to simulate a real-world-like scene or something completely different from it.
Virtual Reality is achieved through specialized VR headsets or by using multi-projected environments. VR takes immersion from 2D in videos to 3D and beyond. Current applications include VR entertainment (e.g., video games, documentaries, etc.), education, and training (e.g, medical demonstration, military simulation, etc.), and business (e.g., meetings through virtual presence).
Other distinct types of VR technology include Augmented Reality (AR), Mixed Reality (MR). Together, these constitute eXtended Reality (XR). Augmented Reality is a recreation of real-world objects, and then altering them to suit the purpose the technology is being developed for. A good example can the video game Pokemon Go that took the world by storm a few years back. The real world was altered according to the Pokemon lore to create a piece of entertainment.
Technology is all about making our lives easier. Virtual Reality and all of its variations (XR) fill in this gap. There are several use-case scenarios of XR. Some of these specific scenarios are listed below.
- Entertainment: Virtual Reality will be a huge step forward in the entertainment industry. The video game industry is already reaping the improved immersion that VR is capable of. Sony launched its PlayStation VR headset back in 2016. The PS VR is capable of playing VR-ready video games when plugged into a PlayStation 4. The PS VR has some of the best VR video games ever made.
The PC gaming industry is also flooded with VR headsets. The Oculus Quest and the HTC Vive are to name a few.
VR also made its way to content consumption. VR movies are already a thing, and online OTT platforms like Netflix VR, Hulu VR, Prime Video VR already enable consuming content with a VR headset.
Future innovations involve high-fidelity mobile holograms and digital replicas. These are extremely sophisticated pieces of technology, and they will take content consumption to another new level.
- Education: VR technology can speed up and ease education and training. VR apps can be creatively developed to create specific environments and landscapes that can be used for complex demonstrations. Without VR, these demonstrations would have required visiting the specific environments and landscapes, which come with their own set of expenses and risks.
VR can also be used for intensive training sessions that involve life risks. It can also be used for experiments that would be practically hazardous or harmful to other aspects.
- Business and Economy: VR can also help is speeding up and ease business meetings. Some high-profile business meetings require expensive international travel. All of these costs can be cut with virtual meetings using VR.
VR, specifically AR, can recreate the experience of an actual meeting. This will enable all professionals to attend high-profile meetings from the comfort of their homes.
I think VR and AR will be the next step forward in interconnecting the world. These technologies have been restricted to sci-fi films and TV shows until a few years back. Although the technology will need another decade to mature, I can easily see them take off in popularity as it reduces risks and increases immersion. Further research on these topics would unfurl the latest innovations to me, which is why I chose this topic.
Virtual Reality is already being widely accepted at the hardware level. The leading VR headsets are the Oculus Rift, Valve Index, HTC Vive, Google Cardboard, and the PS VR. A user cannot experience VR without anyone of these headsets. We will see how each of these headsets has been helping with different aspects of the VR industry.
- Entertainment: Almost all of the above headsets are helping with entertainment. The most headsets used in gaming are the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive on PC, and the PS VR for PlayStation. The Google Cardboard can also enable a user to play smartphone VR games, although there are very few games on smartphones that support VR.
Almost all of the headsets are great for media consumption. The mobile YouTube app comes with an in-built “Watch in VR” mode, that enhances the usage of the Google Cardboard.
On any computer, you can watch any 360º in VR using any compatible VR headset.
- Education: Several educational institutes have adopted VR classrooms as the next generation of demonstration. Institutes also have developed VR theme parks to enhance the quality of education. Coupled with virtual field trips and immersive education, widespread adoption of VR in institutions is just a matter of time.
Several training sessions also have shifted to VR in recent years. Examples can be preliminary training given to professional Formula One racers, military flight training, and experiment simulation.
- Business: VR has been readily accepted in business and enterprise needs because it is extremely cost-saving. Companies like Oculus and provide specialized business solutions, which have been designed to keep enterprise needs in mind.
VR meetings are the definite future since they can help with several emergencies. VR meetings are several times faster and convenient, which paves their way to success.
However, the current developments have a big limitation. All of the VR setups are extremely hardware demanding. The Oculus Rift S requires the users to have at least an Intel Core i5-4590 or an AMD Ryzen 5 1500X coupled with an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 6GB or an AMD Radeon RX 480 8GB. The requirements for other competing solutions are equivalent or more demanding than this. Those systems are extremely expensive for an average user.
Also, the PS VR is proprietary. That means, it can only be used with a Sony PlayStation 4. Also, Google Cardboard requires a smartphone and a special app.
The future developments in the XR industry are very interesting. Prototypes of several of these have already been developed. However, current hardware and network limitations prevent them from rolling out to the public. Some of the future innovations include high-fidelity mobile holograms and digital replicas.
- High-fidelity mobile holograms: Yes, these are those cool stuff we see in sci-fi movies nowadays. Holograms are the next generation of media consumption – a step above video, which was a step above audio. Just for a little comparison, it takes a connection of 1Tbps to render 19.1 Gigapixels of hologram videos. Doing all the calculations, it would require a connection of 0.58 Tbps to render a hologram display over a mobile device. And the support of a human-sized hologram requires a significantly large number of pixels i.e., requiring several Tbps. 5G tops out at 20Gbps, so it is not possible for 5G.
- Digital replicas: A digital replica is a virtual presence through digital twins. Users will be able to explore and monitor reality in a virtual world, without temporal or spatial constraints. A digital twin could be a representation of a remotely controlled set of sensors and actuators. It can help your cousin visit your home in real-time without even leaving his/her room, the only caveat being that he/she could still break your glass remotely. And the possibilities are over endless. It can help scan crash sites and provide top-class facilities and services to even the most remote areas of the world.
But, to duplicate 1 m x 1 m area, we would need a Tera-pixel, which requires 0.8 Tbps, that too considering all compression and a periodic synchronization of 100ms.
Future of XR with Meta
Upcoming prospects also involve the latest announcement of the Metaverse by Meta (formerly Facebook). The Metaverse is supposed to be an entire world based on Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, and Mixed Reality. Meta promises that the Metaverse will change the way we interact with the world and use the internet. It will make playing video games with friends so immersive that players will feel that they are together rather than staring at a computer screen. Metaverse will also make hanging out online more immersive, and people can join each other in a 3D space, rather than “peeking through a window”. Meta also promises that the Metaverse will make virtual meetings more sensible as it will work towards improving virtual presence in a 3D world, rather than staring at a grid of faces.
All of this technology sounds extremely impressive, and part of it also sounds like sci-fi. However, Meta already has started rolling out services like Horizon Home, Horizon Worlds, and Horizon Workrooms.
- Horizon Home is the virtual iteration of a home. It is the first thing that users will see once they put on their Quest headsets. Meta also promised that they will make Horizon Home more social. It will become a home where a user can invite his/her friends and hang out together, virtually.
- Horizon Worlds will be the virtual iteration of the world. However, it will be the way the user wants it to. Horizon Worlds entered into beta last year, and several users and creators have joined it since then. Meta has already added several worlds, and they are planning to make it more social and more robust.
- Horizon Workrooms is business-focused, and it is for collaborations.
Although the technology will take at least another decade to mature, we can already see the fundamentals develop around the world.
Extended Reality (XR) is the future. Investments in this industry have gone up several times in the last five years and with companies like Meta (formerly Facebook) dedicating large R&D into creating their ecosystems, XR will succeed. Even after decades of introduction, VR has not been accepted by the masses because of hardware and network limitations. However, in 2021, we almost have reached the least required hardware to run these technologies. But, the network still lags. Below is a graph based on Samsung’s projections of how hardware and network will be far behind what streaming real-time AR models require.
The great jump in system requirements of AR and other equivalent technologies will create a strong barrier in implementing the technologies with ease. Also, the service duration, from inception to lifetime of compatible network generations like 5G and 6G, is coming down. From a 15 years lifespan of 3G technology, 5G is expected to last just 8 years. This creates further pressure in the development of the implementation of powerful hardware. Although shared and cloud computing can help, current network standards are a big limitation. This makes those technologies quite expensive for an average man.