Some Thoughts on VR

VR champagne. So sweet that I can taste it. At least that's what I tell my colleague as we make a bet about the future of VR.

At stake is a bottle of champagne of the winner's choosing, in 5 years time. My prediction is that VR would be mainstream within this timeframe, where "mainstream" meant 10% of the American population using a VR device 1h, on average, every day. My colleague is not a believer.

VR (virtual reality), in case you haven't heard or gone through the initial (motion sickness inducing) demos, is a computer generated 3D environment that a person can interact with. The primary interface today is a head mounted display. The target market at launch has been gaming though there's been much buzz about its potential impact in verticals like work and education.

Despite the potential, VR today is a niche industry reserved mostly for gamers with CUDA cores to burn or people willing to strap cardboard to their faces. VR tomorrow is anyone's champagne.

I think it comes down to a communication problem.

This is an universal theme for almost any system involving people. It's a common factor in everything from breakups to software development. I've been in design meetings where six people end up walking out thinking that we've agreed on six different outcomes.

People have been around for two hundred thousand years. You think that'd be long enough figure this communications thing out but turns out it's not a trivial problem.

There are approximately 100 billion neurons in the human brain. Each neuron can fire between 5-50 times a second with neighboring neurons which can number in the thousands. Hand waving a little like Queen Elizabeth in a royal parade, this means that hypothetically, the brain can produce over 100 trillion bits of information a second (that's 11.369 terabytes/s). Consider also that this information can be combined and mixed with a lifetime of memories and it becomes a wonder that we can understand each other at all.

We do have some help in the matter today. In addition to words, we have pictures, gifs, emojis, movies, vines, tweets, snaps, doodles, and even face swaps. While these different techniques have increased the information density of transmitted content, its still like trying to stream 4K television through a dial up connection. And at the end of the day, no matter how high fidelity the signal, the content is still subject to interpretation on the receiving end.

This is true every time we receive a message. Don't (solely) blame the personalization algorithms of big software companies for filtering your content because our minds are the masters of this art. Our personal biases color every moment we experience, every message we receive. There's probably no better example of this right now then the current American presidential elections. Here you have two parties that cannot receive any viewpoints counter to their own.

I think VR can help us not just with increasing the information density of transmitted messages but also with the way we receive messages - it can help us see from another point of view.

They say that you shouldn't judge a man (or woman) unless you walk 1 mile in their shoes. With VR, we can put on a headset and do just that (just watch the cord). Even in today's first generation low resolution models, VR can create scenes so real that grown men will freeze when asked to jump down a single step of stairs. The virtual chasm projected at their eyeballs becomes as real as the train that sent crowds of people running from their seats at the premier of the first silent black and white movie.

Instead of oncoming trains, VR could paint disparate viewpoints. Instead of sending a message in isolation and trying to justify with cold facts and numbers, one could build VR content that would make the receiver understand the message on a visceral level. A massacre in the Congo on paper is just a statistic quickly forgotten - a VR simulation that puts you into the middle of the carnage and the countless lives wrecked in the process is much harder to ignore.

Today, there are existing tools that help you see from other points of view. Sites on the internet will show you images in grayscale to simulate color blindness. Others simulate dyslexia by jumbling characters around. What VR could do is generalize this by completely immersing the user in a near perfect simulation. And while we will probably never fully comprehend the mind of another person(or even our own for that matter), with VR we can get so close that we'll be "virtually there".

We live in a world rife with technological marvels. While the ability to query all of human knowledge in one's pocket has undeniably done much good, the lure of an endless stream of distractions has also made it much easier to become isolated from the world at large. There's a very real fear that the onset of VR will hasten this trend and lead people to abandon the real world altogether for a virtual counterfeit.

On the flip side, there's a real potential that VR could help increase our humanity. It could help us craft scenes that would make it easier to understand other people. And in the end, isn't that something we all want? To be fully understood by another and for them, with that understanding, to accept and perhaps even love us for who we are. I'll toast to that - once I get my champagne.


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