|VR Headset. Source: theverge.com|
It's been a while now since we started trying to develop Virtual Reality systems but so far we have not witnessed the explosion of use that inspired the development of such systems. Although there are always going to be some diehard fans of Virtual Reality who will stick to improving the medium and trying out stuff with the hopes of building a killer app, for the rest of us Virtual Reality still seems like a medium that promises to arrive soon but never really hits the spot.
I have been following virtual reality for a while now but things really got interesting when Facebook bought Oculus. The reason for buying Oculus by Facebook was clear, Virtual Reality could be the Social Networking platform of the future so it made sense for the biggest and most successful social network company to buy Oculus, a Virtual Reality company.
But so far VR (Virtual Reality) still seems to be some kind of niche product where mostly early adopters are so far using the platform mostly for gaming and other artistic pursuits. For the masses, Virtual Reality is still yet to hit the spot.
I think that Virtual Reality is the next platform for computing just like we have moved from punched cards to teletype and then visual display units aka the monitor and now our cellphones and tablets, virtual reality opens up a whole new platform that will require that we rethink most our understanding of computing/display technologies.
Most current applications of VR are games or some other stuff that requires heavy graphics work. The challenges we are facing with VR are completely different from what we encountered on our way to developing modern computing devices like cell-phones, tablets, laptops etc.
Back then the problem was solely technological. It was about getting more transistors on a chip or improving the quality of displays or the quality of software interfaces from mostly command driven to point and click graphical user interfaces.
While VR still has some technological hurdles to overcome, like making people not want to throw-up after a while in immersion. This is not the real challenge to more widespread adoption of Virtual Reality, and neither is the cost that much of a big deal. Early PCs did cost way more than the most advanced VR systems and did not deliver even 1% of the raw computational power of modern VR systems.
The issue is not that if we drive cost lower we will have widespread adoption or if we solve the throw-up issue we will have widespread adoption. Its also not really about building more fancy interfaces or even making VR games photo realistic. The problem is truly understanding how the medium can leverage our current computational ability by providing more space where we could build computing systems that leverage our mental capacity to solve problems just like current computing technologies/interfaces have served as a bicycle to our minds, and modern AI is more like adding an electric motor to that bicycle if we truly understand the power of VR we could build systems that could give our minds a supersonic private jet to navigate the computational universe of possible solutions to many of humanity's problems.
SOME LESSONS FROM HISTORY
To understand the power of interfaces we have to look back at the history of computing right from the days of the punched card.
The power of computing has always been there since Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage started working on the theoretical underpinnings of computation. Alan Turing was to later formalize what Ada and Babbage only really dreamt about. It wasn't till the days of the punchcard that computing really started to pick pace even though there had been electromechanical systems like ENIAC, UNIVAC, etc.
Even though there were real limits to the amount of processing power available in the days of the punched card the full power of abstract computing has always been available even in those times and if we are fair enough the full power of computing was available right on the physical paper on which Turing wrote his celebrate paper alongside Alonzo Church of course. But to start utilizing that power efficiently in practical endeavours, we needed better physical realizations of abstract computing power and better interfaces.
In the punched card era programs and results were codified on punched cards and while theoretically, these were all that was needed to do any kind of computing, of course considering also the available processing power, the unnatural input and output methods made it really hard to fully harness the total computing power because most of the time your mind had limited expression because you were not only thinking about the problem you wanted to solve but you were also thinking of all other kinds of details of the medium you were using to express these thoughts.
As we moved from punchcards to teletype our ability to express our computational thoughts in programs was greatly enhanced but it was not until we had the monochrome monitor that our real abilities were unleashed although compared to the proceeding desktop computer revolution with graphical display and mouse clickability, there were still many limits to using a screen that could only accept text. For general programming it was okay, but for many other tasks the monochrome screen was limited even when they had some kind of graphics capabilities.
Although during the PC revolution of the late 80s we had graphical screens with windowed environments, the true power-additions to our toolbox were the mouse pointer and the ability to copy and paste. These additions to our computing ability really put the pedals in these new bicycles of the mind.
The foundation for modern computing interfaces, including the touch screen of tablets, phones and some hybrid setups of touchscreen laptops and desktops was really established by the power we gained from adding a mouse to our repertoire of tools.
All we have added today including the voice capabilities given to us by modern AI systems have been built on the foundation of the Graphical Desktop with resizable and moving windows, the mouse pointer and copy-paste capabilities. This is because all these technologies have been built on the concept of a screen with limited borders in which we can express our computational abilities.
THE POWER OF VIRTUAL REALITY
If VR is to finally arrive, we have to really understand its power. What does VR offer us that screens have not offered so far?
Of course, we could just focus on low hanging fruit like games. You know, we could just port all our 3D games from our monitors and make VR versions of them. But this is not going to be the killer app, because despite the number of people that play games, compared to the rest of the population who use computers to get their daily jobs done, its still a very small population.
Zuckerberg's dream of a Facebook in VR will eventually happen but it will not be compelling enough to get people who are not natural techies to adopt the medium.
For a medium to succeed at the scale that the PC succeeded, it has to be a matter of survival, which is the greatest motivator of all.
Computers were ignored by the mainstream until the PC revolution happened. And even at that, the major reason people got computers apart from playing games on Commodore64 and doing graphics on a Mac, was for basic things that have to do with one's job like spreadsheets and word processing.
Data processing has always been a big driver for computing back from the punched card days, with IBM as the leader. Programmers actually did the data processing jobs at the companies that could afford these expensive computers. Scientists also used these computers at labs that could afford them. But with the PC revolution, you had more people having access to powerful data processing software in the form of spreadsheets and early primitive database packages.
If the PC revolution brought computers to the professional population and of course the gamers, the internet revolution brought computers to everybody. The PC revolution laid the foundation for the internet revolution and we are still living in that revolution even today.
With the internet, you were not limited to your own computer but you could now access other peoples computers and see content on them. This is like having many screens instead of one screen. Of course, you would have to view the content of other people's computers within the limits of your own screen, but the power you gained was that ability to connect and network with other machines anywhere in the world.
The Cloud computing revolution is still a subset of the internet revolution because while the internet revolution started with giving you the ability to get data (information) from other people's computers, the cloud gave you the ability to use other people's processing power to extend that which is already available on yours which of course used the internet as a backbone.
VR is the backbone of the next computing revolution because VR eliminates the traditional limits of a single screen thus providing us with more space on which we could express our computational thoughts, ideas and actions.
VR will not be solely for games or artists, even though that is how it is being used currently. VR will not be a copy of the UI that we have become accustomed to because we developed most our interfaces with the background thought of a limited screen area.
VR will give us infinite space to compute, enabling us design interfaces and operate on ideas in ways that we cannot really imagine now. VR is infinite space, just like the internet gives us infinite compute and infinite screens, of course considering the practicalities of cost. VR gives us infinite space and it is our job as developers to think more abundantly about how we express software and computation.
So the big question is when will VR happen? Unlike AR which I think still needs some major technological leaps and which I will discuss in a future post, VR is ready right now. The hardware is not fully ready but it is super sufficient. What is lacking is the intuition on how best to utilize the medium.
Unlike AGI (Strong AI) which still requires lots of conceptual leaps and it is not clear when they are going to be made or how many have to be made, VR needs just one conceptual leap which will come from the intuition of some developer or businessperson, which makes it possible that it could happen today or within the next 10 years but not too far beyond it.
Why VR is inevitable is because when whoever is going to do it makes that single conceptual leap and demonstrates a very compelling use case such that the big companies start adopting the medium and the workers survival depends on understanding and leveraging their current productivity with this medium, then we will see the first VR boom akin to the PC revolution. For these giant companies to adopt a medium they must be able to see clearly that it gives them some kind of competitive edge, just like the PC did.
The PC revolution was built on several conceptual leaps which started more visible with the monochrome display and hit high gear with resizable windows, mouse point and click, copy and paste and eventually the second bigger boom came in with the internet which is a revolution on its own born on the backs of telephony.
After the first VR boom spearheaded by large companies adopting the medium because of the competitive edge, it gives them, the second and much bigger boom will be seen when the barrier of entry for the small individual is so low that you can get on VR create some small application that gets millions of users and of course the biggest motivator of all, gets the creator of the application lots of money.
So while hardware innovations in the VR space keep chugging along at a steady pace, we await the true conceptual leap that will usher in the VR age and then we will have to reunderstand most of the tasks we do on PC and port them into this space. We are not going to do a blind port like we did porting desktop applications to web applications. The kind of porting we will do will involve understanding the essence of our apps and then transferring that essence to the fundamentally unique VR space.