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SXSW: Virtual and Augmented Reality Checks

(Originally published on Blogcritics.org)

This year, for the first time, a visitor to South by Southwest (SXSW), an annual film, technology and music event in Austin, Texas, could get a reality check. The new VR/AR Track included more than a score of films, panels and live experiences dedicated to this new technology.

AR VR

Virtual reality could be used for news reporting

The technology actually goes back in some forms to the 1980s. What is new is that computer processors have become more powerful and the equipment to support the technology has become affordable for consumers. All the panelists agreed that in the next five years VR/AR will become as ubiquitous as cell phones.

Perhaps, I should define some terms and give examples.

VR/AR Means What?

VR stands for virtual reality. In general, it includes a variety of media technologies which fool our brains into feeling that we are not watching media, but are part of it.

AR, or augmented reality, does not replace what we see, but adds things to it. Examples from the movies include what the Terminator sees when he looks at John Conner, or the hologram of Princess Leia saying, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”

The physical devices that implement the technology range from Google Cardboard, a cardboard box to hold your cell phone to dedicated hardware such as the Oculus Rift and the Microsoft Hololens. There are others.

The Range of Experience

AR VR

Walking around a virtual reality at SXSW

The unifying factor of VR and AR is that they are immersive. The aim is to put you at the center of the experience.

At the very simplest level, you don a headset and watch a movie. You can move your head to change the view. I watched a concert recording like this and was able to turn my head to look at the crowd behind me.

The next level up allows some interaction. I played a classic shoot down the alien spacecraft game with a VR headset and a handheld controller. My first reaction was to move the controller with my hands to aim at the invaders. My coach spoke into my ear, “No, look at the things you want to aim at.” With that little hint, I got the hang of it and saved the Earth.

The next level allows interaction with objects in the virtual environment. One application I viewed allowed a user to play a virtual drum set. A video of this is at the end of the article.

Taking this another step, actually quite a few steps, allows a user to walk around in a virtual environment by walking in the real world. A trick in perspective and subtle shifts of focus in one game, allows the player to feel like they are walking a long distance, while they are actually walking in small circles.

On the augmented reality side, the simplest form is a variation of the classic fighter plane heads-up display. You point your cell phone at, for instance, a restaurant and you can see their menu.

More sophisticated AR applications can scan your environment, for example, a living room, and place virtual objects on walls and flat surfaces. The user can interact with these virtual objects to play games, or solve puzzles or mysteries.

Supplemental equipment can provide physical feedback through speakers or seatbacks so you can feel the bass at a concert or the rumble of an explosion in a battle. Advanced sound applications alter the clarity or volume of a sound based on how a user moves their head or body.

Where Does VR/AR Go Next?

Most panelists during SXSW admitted they didn’t know. The technology may be at a point similar to where film was when Georges Méliès produced A Trip to the Moon in 1902. What they were sure of is that the technology would progress much faster than film did, and that we wouldn’t have to wait 60 years for VR’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

What would you like to see VR and AR used for? Use the comment section below to share your ideas.

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