Last week we started to dip into the world of wearable technology which naturally leads us to augmented reality. Virtual and augmented reality have started to become a big deal in the startup world. The first device to start getting recent serious traction in virtual reality was Oculus Rift. Oculus Rift has become pretty well known as a 3D gaming device although it looks akin to something that Popular Mechanics would keep promising us is coming out for about ten years. It garnered a bit of controversy when the creators raised about $2.5 million for development only to turn around and sell to Facebook for $2 billion because, you know, screw those guys for being smart. The exact future of Oculus Rift is currently uncertain, but we can probably rule out a virtual Facebook wall.
Another big player that just put quite a bit of trust into this tech is Google, and the trust is about half a billion dollars in a company called Magic Leap. Having just started, their website is barely informative but avoids being too vague to not be intriguing. We do know they are tinkering with what is being called “cinematic reality”. Cinematic reality focuses on human creativity and integrating it into how we interact with the world. So it’s not too surprising to note that Magic Leap is working closely with film effects studio Weta Workshop whose founder, Sir Richard Taylor, sits on Magic Leap’s board. The product is said to be built into glasses although it will be vastly different from something like Google Glass because of the way it displays data. Instead of a screen that shows the display, the visuals are directly projected onto the wearer’s retina – a method that has the ability to show a stunningly photorealistic image in a whole new way.
This kind of technology is a big deal, not just because of the vast potential for its use, but because of the social implications as well. There are of course the usual gamut of questions to go through from the ever-watchful critics in the peanut gallery. What are the sociological effects of something like this? Is it actually wise to merge reality with this type of intense virtual stimulation? We humans are very capable of telling the difference between what is real and what isn’t. And because of the way our minds are programmed, there is a threshold where our brains get confused. But we’ve been doing that for a while. For example, we tell stories because they make us feel a certain way. We know deep down that so-and-so is a fictional person, but markings on a page concerning his fate still make our hearts race faster. It’s taken to an extreme with things like theme parks where first-world people who have never had to be in a life-or-death situation board a machine that tricks the body into thinking its about to die, even when the person knows that’s not actually the case.
But with proper use, augmented reality can be just as real as anything we make or build. A school isn’t “the real world.” It’s a constructed microcosm that serves as an environment that is quite different from the actual world. Neither is say, a grocery store. We know that food doesn’t come from a store shelf, but we do know that it’s our method of access. But we probably wouldn’t say that it isn’t useful just because we didn’t slaughter or harvest it ourselves. Ideas, especially half-formed or innovative ones, can become much more accessible through a physical manifestation. That’s why we have whiteboards. Companies like Magic Leap that emphasize creativity and learning have a better chance of making it over something like Oculus Rift which is essentially just an Xbox for your head. I’m not saying that Oculus is bad, but as a non-gamer it’s just not as exciting for me. Augmented reality shouldn’t be boxed in by the users or creators as another fancy game console. It’s imagination and ideas becoming real and that’s why it’s so exciting.