Making Virtual Reality Less Virtual

Is body language the secret ingredient for making a digitized world that feels more natural?
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A virtual picnic (flickr/University of Salford)

A decade ago, the dream of a separate, virtual world didn’t seem so far-fetched. Second Life, a digital world where people could create and interact with human-like avatars, seemed poised to blow up. A magazine wrote a cover story about a Second Life millionaire. Politicians made policy announcements in the virtual world. Reuters, CNN, Wired, and other media outlets built bureaus there.

Second Life never took off as predicted. Despite many efforts at overhaul, founder Philip Rosedale and his company, Linden Labs, couldn’t get the user base to grow. Culturally, the virtual world has become a bit of a joke: References in The Office, The Big Bang Theory, and even the occasional Disney show make the site seem like a refuge for creepers and only the dweebiest of dweebs.

But that might be changing. This fall, a California company called Oculus got funding from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz to perfect the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset designed for gaming. As Wired reported this month, investor Chris Dixon was deeply impressed by the product: “I think I’ve seen five or six computer demos in my life that made me think the world was about to change: Apple II, Netscape, Google, iPhone…then Oculus. It was that kind of amazing.”

Rosedale is also back on the virtual reality scene with the new venture. His company, High Fidelity, wants to build a new avatar world enabled by sensors on phones, computers, and tablets—the goal is to incorporate virtual reality seamlessly into everyday life. His goals go far beyond gaming: He thinks virtual reality technology will eventually become just as ubiquitous as smart phones and laptops.

Even if Rosedale is right, that’s probably a while away. High Fidelity doesn’t have a product even close to being market-ready at this point, although they have done some preliminary experiments with making virtual reality seem more authentic.

At this early stage in the gestation process, though, it’s fascinating to take a closer look at Rosedale’s mission, because it exposes a lot of basic, mind-bending questions. To make virtual reality more real, Rosedale has to have a working theory about what “real” is. And to get backing from firms like Google Ventures (which his company has), Rosedale has to have a persuasive plan for liberating virtual reality from its label of “weird.” The ultimate adoption test—will my mom want to use it?—seems pretty tough to pass in this case: After all, Rosedale is suggesting that people will be okay with dipping in and out of a constructed world where regular rules about time and space and money don’t necessarily apply.

But the question of whether lots of people can learn to love virtual reality is also a wonderful thought experiment, because it forces us to answer this: If reality can be completely recreated with technology, what makes reality so special?

* * *

Like many other new technologies, Rosedale predicts, the rise of virtual reality will come not in a wave, but with a creep—as it becomes more useful, it will start to seem more normal. “We’re working… [to] make virtual reality a lot more accessible and interesting. Work and education are different areas where we could [do that],” he said in an interview.

Although there has been much talk about the big changes to come in education with the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and digital training programs, these technologies are missing an essential component, Rosedale says: They don’t give students the full experience of face-to-face instruction.

“My own prediction is that what we’re doing with High Fidelity will have its first uses in experiential education in ways we’ve not seen,” he said. “Unlike Second Life, the technology is here today to do… things we weren’t able to do before, and one is to let people talk to each other with their faces and body language – that’s teaching.”

Focusing on a specific area like education makes the adoption question a little simpler: Virtual classrooms wouldn’t be designed as a place to build a whole separate world for yourself, like Second Life. They would be just another tool for people who want access to information. “Education is compelling because it’s an early adopter area. Educators are clever and innovative and they try things,” Rosedale said. Plus, “people that are in far away parts of the world who want access to education have a high motivation to use whatever’s out there.”

The rise of virtual reality will come not in a wave, but with a creep—as it becomes more useful, it will start to seem more normal.

Rosedale also sees potential applications for VR in the future of work, especially as a replacement for tools like videoconferencing. “I don’t think we know everything about [videoconferencing] yet,” he said. “We’re all using it a lot, and in big companies everyone is doing it. And then you ask if people like it, and almost no one likes it.”

This is partially because of the time lags, sound quality, and image quality that make us aware that our conversations are being mediated through technology, Rosedale said. “Latency,” or the lag time between making a movement and seeing it reflected on screen while using an interactive device, has been the white whale of companies who build virtual reality headsets—the perception gap often makes people uncomfortable and sometimes physically sick.

Oculus has said that it can get lag time between making a movement and seeing it on screen down to less than 20 milliseconds, which is the speed its engineers think is needed to eliminate discomfort for users. But for something like videoconferencing, especially among people who live far away from one another, the challenge is slightly different: If you had the best technology in the world, how fast could packets of information—like the audio of an executive in San Francisco making a joke to an executive in Singapore—travel across distance?

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

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