Making Virtual Reality Less Virtual

Is body language the secret ingredient for making a digitized world that feels more natural?

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?

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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?

“That number is rapidly approaching the limit of the speed of light, which is as fast as we can send a signal,” Rosedale said. “The time it takes to send one packet from here to Singapore, which is about as far as we can go, is now about 100 milliseconds. It turns out that 100 milliseconds is this really important number, because… it’s the mid-point between where people won’t be able to notice it.”

Current communication technologies aren’t that fast. Rosedale said that Skype has a delay of about a quarter of a second (250 milliseconds), and cellphones have a delay of about half a second (500 milliseconds), but virtual reality simulations could reduce that number by a lot. “100 milliseconds is this human time scale,” he said—it feels real. “There’s something magical about being in a normal space [with other people].”

This is where the creep of virtual reality begins: with useful technologies that serve a purpose other than providing an avatar universe for the relatively small group of people who are already interested in that. But if virtual reality recreates the “real world” in digital form, is there some sort of line where it departs from being just another new tech tool and starts changing how we view the relationships and experiences we have in the non-virtual world?

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“What would happen if New York, London, and San Francisco were no longer the world’s centers of commerce?” Rosedale asked me at one point during our conversation. According to Linden Labs, the company that runs Second Life, there have been more than $3.2 billion worth of economic transactions in the world’s virtual economy over the past ten years. In Rosedale’s vision of a virtual future, a similar sort of economy doesn’t seem unlikely, but it’s this sort of counter-factual that makes people nervous about a potentially totalizing digital world.

“I think ultimately the alarm around virtual reality comes from the fact that it’s a disruptor of space and place as we know it. It’s disruptive of reality, which we don’t feel like we can do without,” Rosedale said.

Perhaps to try and ameliorate these fears, Rosedale has developed a working theory of what actually makes reality “real.” His answer: body language.

One working theory of what makes reality “real”: body language.

“Virtual reality is not any different than reality once you close the communication gap,” he said. “Most of the progress has to come in this face-to-face interaction.” To improve people’s perceptions of avatars, “the thing that’s going to be really demanding is your face and your eyes and the sound of your voice and the nuance of your body movement. When everybody says ‘real,’ oh, we’re going to lose the real—that’s what they mean.”

This is a thought-provoking theory that could easily spiral into a black hole of philosophical history. Of all the people in history who have tried to figure out what’s “real”—ancient Greek sophists, René Descartes, James Franco—it seems unlikely that many were trying to figure out how to fully recreate reality using computers. For being a quicker take on reality than the Discourse on Method, Rosedale’s theory of body language seems to capture something important: Part of how humans subconsciously know they’re in the “real” world (as opposed to a dream, or the Matrix) is through subtle environmental cues that match up with our intuitive understanding of the universe functions. Body language may be a non-verbal form of communication, but it’s still one of the primary ways that people say things to one another. If our avatar-selves can make gestures and expressions that strike people as authentic, is seems plausible that a virtual reality experience could seem more “real.” Perhaps that would cut down on the almost indefinable heebie-jeebie factor that creeps into digital worlds: Watching your avatar in a videoconference would be less like watching a robot approximate what it’s like to be human and more like watching, well, a human.

As virtual reality gains momentum in its second life (yes, an irresistible pun), this seems to be its defining existential challenge: Is wide-spread adoption just a matter of improving the technology? Or will virtual reality always remain a little unsettling because it challenges our understanding of what “real” actually means?

Based on where the technology stands right now, it seems unlikely that virtual reality will approach its version of “singularity” any time soon—when gamers don their VR headsets or businessmen enter an avatar-based digital conference room, they aren’t likely to be confused about what experiences are actually happening in the physical world. On the other hand, if many of the activities that form the basis of our human relationships—teaching, daily communication, commerce—get transferred to an avatar-based virtual world, will that change what those relationships mean?

“There is nothing magical about the real world,” Rosedale said. “There is no magical ether. There are no magical particles that enable us to be connected to each other only when we’re face to face.” Even in its nascent form, maybe virtual reality will change our definition of what’s “real” in the first place.