Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies may get a lot of love from venture capitalists and the tech community, but most people still don’t know what they are. All they have to go on is what they see in the movies: the Terminator and Iron Man use AR, and The Matrix and Tron are about VR. But it’s a problem that so many people’s expectations of these technologies have been set by action movies. To make matters worse, companies building the technology often create concept videos that parallel these movies, showing off capabilities that simply aren’t achievable today or in the near future. As a result, the public has been disappointed with the real technology, despite great advancements being made in this space.
Virtual Reality — Simulated Worlds
If you were alive in the ‘90s, you rode the initial VR wave. From the Virtual Boy headset to numerous virtual reality films, the promise was to transport you to a virtual world where you could become a digital god in The Lawnmower Man or do a neural jack-in to learn Kung Fu in The Matrix. What most of these films had in common was a person interfacing with a variety of devices to interact with and within a simulated world. Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that we will be closer to these Matrix-like VR experiences in 20-25 years. However, current VR technology is much closer to the HTC Vive’s Tilt Brush experience and relies on more structured experiences within a predefined physical space. Hand tracking, full body tactile feedback, spatial mapping, and a host of other capabilities need to evolve before VR can approach a fraction of the virtual immersion promised in films.
Virtual Reality — Collaboration / Automation
Another popular VR concept has been the ability to use glasses for collaborative virtual reality tasks. The Michael Crichton book and film Disclosure uses VR in a rather impractical way to access virtual systems to collaborate. With a different take on virtual collaboration, the 2008 film Sleep Dealer shows virtual offshoring for manual labor using VR and gestural control. HoloLens technology is already showing how virtual collaboration works in your physical space (and is eerily similar to this scene from Disclosure), while AltSpaceVR is attempting collaboration within virtual space. Current remote control drone technology, gesture controlled robots, and advancements with shared gestural interactions makes Sleep Dealer’s dystopian vision even closer to reality.
Augmented Reality — Gesture Control
The movies we most commonly reference to portray how we will use AR to interact with virtual objects is Iron Man. Tony Stark starts up J.A.R.V.I.S and can grab virtual objects out of the air and turn them using only his hand. How he actually sees and has advanced interactions with the virtual objects with no eye wear isn’t explained, and holographic technology wouldn’t allow for what is seen in the film. However, Google, Samsung, and other companies are trying to make augmented reality contact lenses. What is more near term and already a reality is the gesture interface technology from Minority Report. John Underkoffler was a consultant on Minority Report, and his company, Oblong, already has similar interfaces in use by clients. For interaction with virtual objects, HoloLens technology uses gestures within your field of view to point and click within a virtual interface. While gestures can currently be used to interact with and move virtual objects with technology like Kinect, detection and tracking of objects synchronized to finger movements is still a few years away. Decades away is the ability to use an AR system depicted in Iron Man 2 to “create” a new element like Vibranium.
Augmented Reality — HUD Content
Iron Man (again), The Terminator, and a slew of other films and video games over the last 20 years have shown heads up displays (HUD) with AR content. Google tried to show forward-thinking HUD concepts for a mass consumer device with Glass, but the conceptual vision was years ahead of the initial device’s technological capabilities. However, other companies like Daqri are using HUD technology focused on virtual training, and Skully is using HUD technology for motorcycle helmets.
Automakers are also concepting ways to integrate augmented reality windshields into cars, while companies like WayRay are taking a different approach with in-auto holographic devices to project AR information. The main technical challenge, though, is to get from showing static display information in the HUD, which current products can do, to displaying real-time object detection/recognition in the HUD as shown in movies like The Terminator. Current object detection/recognition technology is still in its infancy and privacy issues around facial detection/recognition will likely affect how and when this technology makes it to market. As a result, Sarah Connors of the world can relax for now as we likely won’t see Terminator vision as depicted in the films for another decade or so.
Augmented Reality – Location-based Advertising / Virtual Information
Location-based virtual display information has seen various movie portrayals in the sci-fi/horror space, from hidden AR messages in They Live to a more humorous (yet potentially horrifying) vision of AR hyper advertising from Keiichi Matsuda. Both of these film narratives portray virtual information displayed all around us based on our geolocation.
Here in reality, mobile geofencing and geolocation already exist, and it’s just a matter of time until next-gen GPS is available to allow for AR-based objects to be placed with precision in our (virtual) location. Though this technology is similar to how HUD real-time display information will be displayed, there are offsetting technical challenges with either approach. Whereas automotive-based HUDs can use quite powerful imaging devices and processing power for object detection/recognition, personal eye wear will be subject to less processing power and will have to rely on geolocation to display virtual objects or information. It will be awhile before a wearable device can do accurate, distance-related object detection/recognition.
Special Mention — Black Mirror
No examination of VR and AR technology in movies would be complete without a mention of Black Mirror. This series is a futuristic Twilight Zone that, in each episode, shows a different future technology as the basis for a situational story. From The Entire History of You, where eye implants record and playback everything you see, to Fifteen Million Merits, which uses gamification with AR/VR, this series shows the very realistic possibilities (and dangers) of future tech. While the eye implant technology is still conceptual for now, other episodes revolve around current tech like social media and how it might evolve in less than desirable ways. You will never think of your social media profile the same way again once you see Be Right Back.
While cinematic concepts of both AR and VR are often dazzling, our ability to achieve these capabilities is often more fantasy than reality. Tech companies have been increasingly using concept videos or cinematic film references to hype their AR and VR tech, which has led to disappointment when their actual tech gets into the hands of brands and consumers. While some companies might be able to raise seed investment or achieve short term PR from playing this game, without sustainable brand or consumer interest in your technology, you won’t secure additional revenue or investment to continue on. At the same time, companies that are developing products based on current technical realities could find themselves on the defensive over why their tech looks inferior to an unrealistic concept.
We need to find a delicate balance between setting realistic expectations of what current technology can do (the reality) and sparking excitement about where this technology might be in the near future (the promise). Otherwise, we’ll continue to be stuck in a real life version of Groundhog Day where AR and VR continually boom and bust as technologies that only seem promising for a cinematic future.
Matt Szymczyk is CEO and founder of Zugara, a Los Angeles-based augmented reality software developer working to make online shopping more social and engaging.