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Seeing the Future Differently with AR and VR

Immersive, mixed-reality experiences and the metaverse will change life, work, and everything else.

Last year, Mark Zuckerberg revealed Facebook’s next move—its evolution to Meta, a social technology company. Meta describes the metaverse, an immersive VR (virtual reality)-enabled space that allows users to interact with a computer-generated environment, as “the next evolution of social connection.” Could this so-called next iteration of the internet also underpin the evolution of work? Will the adoption of immersive technologies, including not only VR but also other XR (extended reality) technologies such as AR (augmented reality), prompt a fundamental change in the way humans see the world?

Since Zuckerberg’s Meta announcement, the metaverse has become a particularly hot topic, often conjuring as much excitement and optimism as fear and backlash. On one hand, just think how a metaverse powered by AR and VR could have been the solution so many craved during those long, early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many businesses couldn’t run efficiently because they had no good way to bring their people together digitally to accomplish tasks. Schools had to shut down, because, for the most part, there was no infrastructure to support remote learning. The next time a pandemic rips through the world, perhaps the metaverse will be the place everyone goes to do life and business and just about everything else.

Beyond the ability to bring people together digitally in case of a global crisis, the use cases for AR/VR and related technologies are exciting and range from increased productivity and improved on-the-job training to the ability to upskill or reskill workers in industries suffering from skills gaps. These technologies have a way of shrinking the world—for instance, by bringing people together virtually so they feel like they’re physically together—and simultaneously broadening the world by bringing a whole planet’s worth of experiences to one’s office, classroom, or living room.

And yet, these same technologies have many people wondering how engaging in reality-enhancing or even alternate-reality environments will negatively impact work, life, and society. Turns out, “moral panics” like these are to be expected when the status quo is being challenged by new ideas, and VR and other immersive technologies are certainly challenging the status quo right now … or, if not right now, soon. Presumably soon, Apple will finally unveil its first mixed-reality headset—and often, where Apple goes, the world follows. So, buckle up your avatars; these technologies are here to stay, and experts say VR is about to free fall toward ubiquitous.

What’s Trending in VR

Statista’s research suggests the global market for AR, VR, and MR (mixed reality) will reach an astonishing $300 billion by 2024, which is up from $30.7 billion in 2021. Duncan Irschick, biology professor at University of Massachusetts at Amherst and director of the Digital Life Project, says the biggest trends affecting AR and VR adoption right now relate to the technologies’ increasing ease of use. “AR/VR used to be very technically challenging, but new apps are popping up on all kinds of platforms,” he says. “This trend, combined with better hardware, and also more standardization of 3D content, is allowing people to access VR and AR content in a much more substantial way.”

Roy Magnuson, associate professor of music composition and creative technologies at Illinois State University and creator of the VR composition software solsticeVR, identifies a couple of specific, technical trends influencing adoption, including miniaturization and advances in optic technologies. “The miniaturization of the computing technology in VR/AR devices will be critically important to widescale adoption,” Magnuson says. “This will allow for smaller, lighter devices that can run for longer and produce less heat as a byproduct. This, coupled with advances in display technology (and) optic technology. We are right at the cusp of another major innovation in lens tech—moving from the industry standard Fresnel-style lens to a flatter, smaller, much visually clearer ‘pancake’-style lens. (This) will make the whole experience feel more ‘present’ and ‘real’. All of this will allow for a more comfortable experience for the user, and when combined with continued iteration on the user experience, will make it much, much easier to use VR/AR devices for longer periods of time and to just pick up for a first-time user.”

Magnuson believes what’s happening now with VR is nothing short of the birth of the next computing platform. “Having spent the better part of the last four years deeply involved in developing software and teaching design for a wide range of VR/AR products, I can say with some degree of certainty that we have passed over the edge and are now in free fall towards it being ubiquitous,” he states. As to what this means for day-to-day life, Magnuson suggests it could be insanely disruptive, simply because, as he puts it: “You don’t have to be somewhere to be there anymore.”

Danny Milisavljevic, assistant professor in the Dept. of Physics and Astronomy at Purdue University, says his interest in VR stemmed from a need to share and jointly explore complex multidimensional data, and he sees broader benefits of adoption, like fostering collaboration and empathy among people. He says: “I’m finding that the combination of an immersive virtual environment and collaboration among multiple participants uniquely improves the bandwidth of information sharing (and) provides impactful, long-lasting experiences,” Milisavljevic says. “My hope is that more VR content can been developed that encourages interaction between users. I also hope that more content will be created that places users in situations where they may gain empathy in ways that are impossible to develop when looking at a mobile phone screen.” 

James Birt, associate professor of film, screen, and creative media at Australia’s Bond University, says the move to remote work and remote education brought on by the global COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the XR industry forward in a big way, as corporate industry, education providers, and big tech all shifted their focus to enabling platforms that keep people connected. Thanks to this pandemic-induced push, even more change is coming down the line for 2022 and beyond.

“With the emergence of the metaverse and the shift of big tech to focus on new service platforms, the role of AR/VR will change how we communicate and see the world,” Birt explains. “We are witnessing corporate organizations integrating mobile VR into scalable workplace training and how universities are adopting fully virtual reality courses. The AEC (architecture, engineering, and construction) industry is adopting digital twins and AR to better plan sustainable cities, and the film industry is shifting how they develop movies by utilizing game engines for previs (previsualization) and virtual cinematic production.”

Muhsinah Morris, interim department chair and assistant professor of chemistry at Morehouse College, says another key trend in this space is the use of AR and VR in enterprise settings for upskilling and reskilling employees. For instance, she says this is happening in the manufacturing industry and in labs where compliance laws change often. It’s also helping industries grapple with skills gaps.

5 Ways to Shift from an Analog to a Digital World

Muhsinah Morris of Morehouse College shares five ways society can shift from an analog to a digital world:

  1. Transform education from the youngest of the population. Students in preschool must learn about computing and how to code. 
  2. Infuse education with real-world application and complexity. Students must learn to make connections across disciplines and use everything together to solve problems. 
  3. Encourage creatives to collaborate with the technical minds of coders to develop and build the metaverse.
  4. Empower young people to learn more about the new economics of the metaverse, intellectual property laws in digital technologies, cultures, customs, and languages of people from every corner of the world. 
  5. Invest in current educators and upskill them in the art of education and learning with technology. They must be confident in their ability to educate students in this new space. 

“Creating talent pipelines for highly skilled workers must be the largest problem companies will face in the future,” Morris says. “As the last of the Baby Boomers began to enter retirement, there are positions left vacant because the years of experience made the employee valuable to their company. Using VR to train workers asynchronously and outside of working hours with less expense is advantageous. Having AR available for troubleshooting problems provides a realtime solution to having machinery offline until a technician can come and fix it. With AR glasses, the employee can skillfully work on the instrument, with instructions on how to fix it being augmented in the real world in realtime.” 

The Big Bust and Other Hurdles

Andy Opel, professor and director of the Digital Media Production Program at Florida State University, says society can only guess how these powerful, immersive technologies will change the world. “When the Lumière Brothers first screened a train arriving at a station to small audiences in France, audiences literally got up and got scared,” Opel says. “They thought the train was coming into the theater; there was a physical reaction. We’re seeing a similar thing with VR. People get nauseous, and they can only wear the headsets for a small amount of time. Early film was very short, and it was also heavily shaped by theater. So, I think right now we’re at that same place with VR. We’re thinking about VR through the lens of television and film, and we are really just beginning to experiment with it and trying to understand it as a culture.”

Opel believes the current AR/VR adoption curve is the biggest yet, but there will inevitably be a bust. “These adoption waves are often followed by a technological bust,” he explains. “My prediction is that we’re likely to see another bust in this because we’ve seen successive waves, and these waves are often followed by disillusionment—cultural rejection.”

In the case of VR and social VR like the metaverse, Opel points out there is moral panic about whether headsets are bad for people’s eyes, whether the technology is bad for children socially, physically, or developmentally, and so on. “(Some worry that) these are places where sexual predators have increased presence and that they’re dangerous. (Or) they’re pulling us out of the real world and distracting us from the pressing problems of social injustice and climate change. These types of moral concerns have tended to accompany every introduction, whether it’s the telegraph, radio, television, or computers, so I’m not particularly worried about those moral panics.”

Opel points to ever-present concerns about democratic access and corporate control and consolidation. “Clearly, Facebook is trying to make a big play for consolidation and corporate control, and with all the ensuing privacy concerns that are legitimate and problematic, the VR space will need a type of policy regulation that helps reaffirm access and transparency and accountability,” he says. “As these technology companies roll out new hardware tools, we need an accompanying set of policies developed by civil society to protect and make sure that these tools are used fairly. There needs to be transparency and accountability built in, and right now it’s the wild, wild west.”

On the hardware front, headsets need to be lighter and less bulky. Morehouse College’s Morris says there also needs to be more VR applications available that appeal to the lay person. “There must be something necessary for daily living, which is part of the usefulness of this technology,” she says. “It must be easier to access useful content or community. At this time, there are still many demographics that AR/VR is not accessible for. There is a digital divide where the socioeconomics don’t allow for all people to have VR headsets or AR glasses.”

Security is also a hurdle, because legislation has not kept up with innovation, especially in the metaverse realm. “Many people desire a decentralized space for the metaverse, which also makes it harder to make it safe for all people, including elders, children, the neurodiverse, physically disabled, socioeconomic disadvantaged, and those less technically acclimated to the lingo of operating in digital spaces,” Morris points out.

Bond University’s Birt says costs need to come down and there remain important ethical, legal, and moral questions around user privacy, safety, and the emergence of big tech monopolies in this space. “The cost to develop XR platforms is high, and only those companies with large budgets and human capital can afford to compete,” he explains. “With the world shifting towards the emerging metaverse, these platforms will become more integrated into our lives and the reliance on data, machine learning, and return on investment will loom large. If we start to shift people onto these platforms, we will need to better understand the impact on the brain, body, and social communication. With more sensors and data points, we need to have more open discussions and governance of these virtual environments, including international standards, user-driven data privacy, and greater inclusion of all peoples, including the reliance on machine learning and inherent bias that may render certain peoples unable to engage fully with the experiences.”

Purdue’s Milisavljevic has found that in his experience in academia, shared virtual spaces that depict data in intuitive/tangible ways dramatically accelerates comprehension and creative questioning. Visualization democratizes understanding, essentially leveling the playing field, so people with varying levels of spatial coordination are no longer disadvantaged and can contribute equally to the creative process. “The best ideas are born this way,” Milisavljevic says. “I think enterprise can and will start to do the same—using technology to diversify the creative talent of their teams to improve decisionmaking processes and accelerate innovation.”     

Society craves the integrative, realistic, and powerful emotional experiences that VR and AR can deliver, and these technologies will create a tectonic shift in how people engage in everything from entertainment to medical care. Illinois State University’s Magnuson says ubiquitous adoption will come with an open, accessible system that’s hardware and platform agnostic and the arrival of an “inexpensive-ish, frictionless-ish device”. All of this and more is in the works, and in the not-so-distant future, he says we’ll see that device and software combination that completely transforms the world in good and, very likely, quite disruptive ways.

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