by Margot Douaihy
Imagine peering into the vent of a volcano or floating through the neon wisps of the Perseids meteor shower. With virtual reality (VR), it’s all possible. VR offers the power to experience different worlds as well as push the limits of our own realities. But will VR ever transcend the gaming industry to catch mainstream traction? What does VR suggest about the future of communications and audiovisual technologies?
For Dr. Puya Abolfathi, biomedical engineer and founder of the VR/AR company Visospace, virtual reality extends far beyond the visual or auditory inputs.
Dr. Puya Abolfathi, biomedical engineer and founder of the VR/AR company Visospace
“True VR is when you look around and you're in a completely different world to your physical organic world, and all your senses have been hacked,” said Abolfathi who is based in Australia. “You’re seeing things as you would see in reality, but they're not really there. You're touching things that are not there. You're smelling. You're hearing.”
He explained that the simulation of VR is really an “audiovisual trick” — presenting two images to the eyes that are stereoscopic. These images are stitched so cogently they trick the brain into seeing and “believing” in an immersive, digital world.
The recipe for persuasive VR, he contends, is when the eyes are presented with the right images and body movements are sensed by a tracker or sensor that instantly sends the signal back to the image generator.
While VR may seem like a foreign concept to some, immersive, spatial computational experiences are natural to Abolfathi. “It is the closest match to our biology. We didn't have to come to this world as three-dimensional seeing animals, but that is the world for which we are hardwired. Everything around us is presented to us in 3D, through our eyes.”
Experiencing Virtual Reality via the headset and Visospace Alto.
Gaming applications are a natural fit for VR, but there are myriad industries investing heavily in the emerging technology. The healthcare industry is leveraging VR to improve or create new forms of therapy, treatment of phobias, pain management, and even the immersive visualization of medical data. “If you put on a headset, you could actually see a person's brain in front of you in three dimensions, the way your body is designed to understand images,” he stated. “You could see a tumor exactly where the tumor is in that brain.”
Dr. Abolfathi pointed to a company that is taking MRI and CAT scans in their raw formats, passing them through a process and bringing them into VR, so they can be appreciated in 3D by doctors and patients using headsets. “This is all happening today,” he underscored.
The benefits of authentic spatial planning also extend into the architecture industry. “With virtual reality, an architect can design in 3D and be inside the house or structure they're designing, so that they can gain a much better understanding for how the design flows or spot any mistakes before they are made. They could test out many aspects of their design in real time.”
Virtual Reality can be enhanced with full body immersion and haptic feedback via the EXOFLEX modular device.
VR holds radical potential in education as well. Abolfathi contends that education is still heavily based on abstractions and memory-based learning. Even team-based projects and active learning modalities are often theoretical. “All of this can be done with a super boost if we had an immersive learning environment around us,” he said. In VR, students can travel to historical sites and see edifices unfold around them. “Imagine how much of an impression that would make to a young mind to learn about the Taj Mahal by actually being there,” he enthused.
There is another industry VR promises to disrupt — the commercial audiovisual industry. AV used to be analog. Now the storage of media and the projection of audiovisual signals is highly or fully dependent on computers. A major revolution will come “when we eliminate computer screens and touch screens,” Abolfathi said. “It is not a question of if, it is a question of when the disruption will happen.”v
He envisages a time in the near future when, instead of carrying smartphones, people have some kind of head-mounted device that allows them to access not only a 2D screen anywhere in the world, but a shared 2D screen, and on top of that a shared 3D image. “What does that do for the AV industry?” he inquired. “Will there be a need for projectors anymore? Will there be a need for shared places like conference rooms? Will the audiovisual experience be presented two-dimensionally or will it be a spatial, moving, virtual image?”
While these scenarios might seem like science fiction, it is important for AV technologists to think deeply about the evolution of screens, hardware, and ambient computing, especially as 5G takes hold.
What is the cost of VR — in human terms? Will more VR translate into an erosion of relationships or empathy? “Not at all,” Abolfathi opined. He believes that VR technology will help us become better people because it will accelerate our growth, learning, and connections in every way possible. “Spatial computing has the potential to do the most fundamental thing that humans seek — to derive meaning from reality. We derive meaning by the interactions with the world around us and each other. If this can all be done digitally, without the limitations of the physical world, it will be the most important technological revolution we have yet seen.”
Abolfathi merges his creativity, biomedical engineering expertise, and product development acumen in his company Visospace with the goal of creating “the right kind of interface” to unlock VR’s full immersive potential. He explains that the digital experience he believes is possible will only be realized with a truly seamless interface, with the signals taken out of the digital processing centers, computer chips, and the storage of data, and fed into the human senses. Visospace has created a frictionless VR interface, called the Alto, that is more aligned with the human body and mind.
The Alto, a frictionless VR interface at Visospace
“We're building interfaces to our senses, so that we can perceive digital content in a way that's natural for our biology, and that we can influence digital content with our bodies and minds and through that extension, back to reality itself and to others,” he said. With haptic feedback and context — another feature of the Alto — users can surf, spin, fly, dive, and move without the disruption of VR's current disjointed movement method called teleportation.
“We need to touch and feel the resistance and weight of digital objects. We’re moving from human to computer, back to human — all through the right kinds of interfaces. This is the future for me.”
Margot Douaihy is the editor-at-large of AV Technology magazine, winner of the 2018 Jesse H. Neal Award for Best Media Brand. She teaches at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire.